You're thinking about making Grandma's Southern Cornbread.
You head for your pantry. You remember that six months ago you purchased a bag of cornmeal from a local supermarket and that you immediately emptied the contents into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.
You open the airtight jar and notice something strange. It's moving. Moving? Moving? Yes! It's crawling with a transparent carpet of dozens of nearly microscopic critters.
What? First, what are they? If you're like me, you grab your camera--in this case, a Canon EOS 7D with an MPE-65mm lens that can magnify an insect five times its life size--and click the shutter.
You post the photo on BugGuide.Net and request an identification.
The entomologists all agree: They're booklice, Liposcelis bostrychophila.
Class Insecta (Insects)
Order Psocodea (Barklice, Booklice, and Parasitic Lice)
Family Liposcelididae (Booklice)
Species bostrychophila (Booklouse)
These Liposcelis bostrychophila, or "psocids" (pronounced "so kids"), are common pests in stored grains. They're usually unseen because they're about a millimeter long--about the size of a speck of dust--and are transparent to light brown in color. They're also wingless, but can they ever crawl!
Fact is, their name, "lice," is misleading. These tiny insects are not lice; they are not parasitic. And they're everywhere. They feed on flour, cereals, grits, molds, fungi, papers, books, pollen, dead insects and the like. In fact, you've probably unknowingly eaten them--or parts of them--in your pancakes, your oatmeal or maybe even your chocolate birthday cake.
Entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the butterfly-moth collection at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, took one look at the photo and commented: "They're pretty thick in there!"
"Booklice can be scavengers and often feed on the bits of mold or fungi that grow on damp materials," Smith explained. "Very old, neglected food stuffs are also subject to them, and the key to prevention is to use food materials reasonably quickly and not store them for years, store them in a nice dry location and in airtight containers."
"They very well could have been in the food already when you bought it, but they're so common that you probably have some roaming around in the house all the time, just looking for something good to eat. They'll feed on dead bugs in window sills, stale pet foods, etc."
If you're worried about what's in your cornmeal, flour, oats, biscuit mix, cake mix and other stored foods, you can pop the contents in your oven at about 120° for a half hour, and then transfer them to an airtight container, Smith says. "Your food should be okay--albeit perhaps containing a few dead booklice. We had them in an old bag (paper) of rice one time, and in several packages of cornmeal mix that were forgotten in the back of our cupboard."
A UC Davis colleague said he's seen them crawling in his flour, but his wife made pancakes from them anyway. No issues. No problem. "Just protein!" he chortled.
And from another colleague: "I once had an entire case of instant grits. The grits were completely factory-sealed in unopened plastic bags. I opened the bags and the grits were poured into hot water, but they would not sink and mix with the water. Instead the grit floated on the top of the water. I opened a second bag and looked at the grits under my stereo microscope. Each and every grain of grit had two or three little six-legged creatures standing on each grit. These creatures were 100 percent transparent, the only color was in their bodies which was the same color as the grits they were eating. I opened every 100 percent factory-sealed bag, and every bag was contaminated in this matter."
"There is nothing new about insect contamination of grain products," she added. "Another personal experience was a biscuit mix. For no particular reason, I sifted the biscuit mix while making the batch of biscuits. After sifting several cups of biscuit mix, in the sifter screen there were 4 worm-like creatures about the diameter of a standard pencil and about an inch long. These worms were 100 percent transparent, each filled with the white biscuit mix. "Consider we all eat insects, spiders, and urine and feces of all sorts of animals."
We live in world where we all eat bugs, whether we know it or not. Sometimes we may not want to know!
Statistics indicate that the average American unknowingly eats one to two pounds of insects a year. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "has very specific tolerances for the amount of residue in food stuffs," said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
Want to know what the action level is? Check out this FDA document.
And the next time, you're yearning to make Grandma's Southern Cornbread, you might want to check for bugs first. Or maybe not. You might not want to know!
“What if, today, we were grateful for everything?” asks Charlie Brown.
You don't need to be a beloved cartoon character to understand the meaning of Thanksgiving. Giving thanks seems like an excellent goal for this year's celebration … and every day, really. Here are some important steps for a healthy, delicious and memorable holiday.
First, be safe Millions of Americans will be celebrating this Thanksgiving. Foodborne illness is a real concern. So, let's make sure everybody enjoys the meal and doesn't get ill.
From safely thawing a turkey to making sure it's properly cooked, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers a range of tips to keep your holiday safe. (One hint: take care with the stuffing). The USDA's famous Meat & Poultry Hotline will remain open on Thanksgiving Day until 11 a.m. PST; their team of experts is on hand to answer any questions you may have.
No, Thanksgiving feast would be complete without pie. Whether you're a sweet potato or pumpkin pie fan, good crust is essential. Making a good pie crust isn't rocket science...but it does involve molecular science. In this video, University of California researcher Amy Rowat uses science to show you how to make the best pie crust ever.
Second, savor the meal
Did you know that there's a science to eating? Before you pile lots of food on your plate, take time to consider these seven steps from University of California scientists and researchers; they will assure that you savor every bite of your meal.
Third, don't waste
Enjoy your meal, but make it a point to reduce food waste this holiday season.
“Food waste presents a major challenge in the United States. Estimates suggest that up to 40% of the food produced nationally never gets consumed, causing substantial economic and environmental harms. Wasted food utilizes vast quantities of precious land, water and human resources, yet rather than nourishing people, it feeds landfills, producing methane gasses that poison the environment. Much of the food waste (43%) occurs at the household level.”
We sought out experts from UC ANR's Master Food Preserver Program for advice on how to use leftovers. Some takeaways: refer to this food storage chart to determine how long you can safety store leftover food. For more tips, click here. Leftover turkey can be used to make a delicious homemade stock that can serve as the base for additional meals. We provide a recipe and information about how to safely preserve stock here.
However you celebrate Thanksgiving, the staff of UC ANR wishes you a safe, happy and healthy holiday.
Editor's Note: UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) researchers and educators draw on local expertise to conduct agricultural, environmental, economic, youth development and nutrition research that helps California thrive. We operate the 4-H, Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver Programs. We live where you live. Learn more here. Are you a #veteran or #beginning farmer interested in learning more about poultry production? UC ANR is co-hosting a series of poultry workshops beginning in December and throughout 2017. Get the details here.
Learn more about native and indigenous foods from Valerie Segrest of the Muckleshoot Tribe in the Pacific Northwest; the post appears on the UC Food Observer blog.