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My apples are treated with beetle goo!

red,delicious,shellac,apple,cheap. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
judy came home from the store with a bag of ‘Red Delicious’ apples the other day. I can see why she bought them, 5lb of apples for just $3.99 – that’s 80 cents a pound (in UK money - 50p per pound or £1.10p per kilo). Cheap. Very cheap. Too cheap.

But here’s the thing. It says on the bag that they’re coated with shellac! SHELLAC! That’s the stuff my dad had on a shelf in the garage, in a sticky brown bottle – he used it to varnish the coffee table! No wonder those apples look shiny. It even has an E number, E904. Don't they look shiny in the picture?!

Now it so happens that judy’s reading the new Bill Bryson book, At Home, and just as we were discussing those apples she came across a passage in which Mr B discusses – shellac. Here’s what he says: “Shellac is a hard resinous secretion from the Indian lac beetle.” Yuk. “Lac beetles emerge in swarms in parts of India at certain times of the year, and their secretions make varnish that is odorless, nontoxic, brilliantly shiny, and highly resistible to scratches and fading.”

So, if you don’t fancy eating table varnish made from beetle goo, how do you get it off? Tricky, it seems. Over on the Veggie Boards, said to be the largest and most active vegetarian forum online, they discuss shellac a lot. One member says: “Shellac can't be removed with baking soda and vinegar. Denatured alcohol is the solvent used to remove shellac, but that is very toxic. Food grade alcohol might work, but I think it is better not to buy food with shellac...”

I’ve kept back the last of those apples, I’m just going to hang on to it and see how long it stays fresh under its coating of beetle goo.

But what better reason to grow your own apples or shop at the local farmers’ market?

Comments

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Helen at Toronto Gardens

Your post sent me off on a Googlehunt. It revealed that we probably eat shellac more often than we'd like to think -- in time-released medications, for example. Frankly, I'd rather have bug-goo in my stomach than some kind of petroleum product... and, who knows, at some time in our future we could knowingly eating insects (I don't count the bug bits we eat accidentally as part of other foods). However, I agree that home- or local-grown foods are to be much preferred.

GertJan

Almost all oranges are treated with shellac. If you peel an orange by hand, you get these small flakes on your hands. These must be the shellac. When I was a little boy, I polished the chairs at home with it.

Besides the fact that you might think that it is harmfull (not all E numbers are harmfull by the way), the labour of excretion collection is very poorly payed.

Graham Rice

Well, GertJan, you certainly had a, what shall we say, distinctive childhood: polishing the furniture with flakes off orange skins. And yes, harvesting shellac, it's a tough job - but clearly the price of cheap apples is child labor in the shellac fields/nests/mines/tunnels or wherever it is that the beetles live.

But Helen, whether it's shellac or petroleum wax - it's the price we actually pay for our intense demand for cheap food. Which is also, by the way, one of the reasons people tolerate illegal immigration. Pay legal California farm workers a proper wage and there'd be outrage at the price of a lettuce.

Fiona Gilsenan

Seems like it's also the price we pay for shipping products long distances to market. But you wouldn't think that would be necessary for apples.

This thread sent me off on a dangerous Google search on 'how many insects do we eat each year'. No, I'm not going to link to any of the results. You'll have to find out about eating spiders in your sleep on your own!

digger

Hmmm, so much easier to grow your own

GertJan

Hmmm.... it realy says that Graham, 1-0 for you, but of course I polished the chairs with a product based on shellac, not with oranges.......

Graham Rice

Delighted to discover, GertJan, that your childhood was not as bizarre as it seemed...

And no, Fiona, one link about eating spiders in our sleep is exactly what we need!

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