The snack that started as trash.
Fruit has always been beloved. Folks ate it fresh, dried it for later, or put it up in jars to sweeten dull winter dishes. By the late 1800s, California canneries were working to make fresh fruit commercially available year-round. Canned peaches were a favorite, but processing them was a huge pain. Peaches bruised easily and spoiled quickly. That led to a ton of waste.
Food waste at an industrial scale is a tricky thing to deal with. It represents lost profits, but it can also lead to serious environmental issues. It turns out that you can’t pump enormous piles of rotting peach guts into your community without causing major repercussions for wildlife and waterways. The United States government was not going to let a love of canned fruit ruin the countryside. The amount of garbage canneries were allowed to throw out was restricted, and food scientists began working on ways to divert organic waste. Peach pits could be sold to companies that made things like beauty creams or charcoal briquettes. And those little pieces of perfectly good peach between the bruised or rotten parts? Those could be chopped up and combined with other fruits to create an edible and delicious fruit cocktail. It was an incredible way to repurpose what would otherwise be trash. (As a side note, “complying with environmental regulations” is a very cool reason to invent a new product. Way cooler than “making more money” or “reaching new customers.”)
Since consistency was key when it came to mass produced goods, canneries got together to hammer out a recipe they could all agree on. Later, the USDA wrote regulations mandating that anything called fruit cocktail would include peaches, pears, pineapples, grapes, and cherries. Not only was the ingredient list limited, but the proportions were dictated as well. You must have at least a certain amount of each ingredient, but no more than a certain amount. For instance, pears make up between 25-40% of the drained fruit volume of any can labeled “Fruit Cocktail.” You can buy some and check! There are plenty of pears! Cherries, however, are more elusive. They make up just 2-6% of any can. Most reasonable humans agree that it isn’t enough.
In addition to their scarcity, color is the big reason that fruit cocktail cherries are so popular. They are brilliantly red. Unnaturally red. Completely artificially red! And according to the USDA, the cherries are the only thing in a fruit cocktail that is allowed to be red. The syrup cannot be red. The other fruits cannot be red. Only the cherries can be red! Unfortunately, most red food dyes bleed. Touch anything you own with a maraschino cherry (Red Dye No. 40) and you’ll see what I mean. If fruit cocktail cherry dye were to bleed, the fruit cocktail would no longer legally be fruit cocktail. Everything would be red. It would be a nightmare! Luckily, there was a red food dye that stayed exactly where you put it, and that was Red Dye No. 3
Red Dye No. 3 had a problem. It was shown to cause thyroid tumors in lab rats. After that finding, the FDA banned its use in cosmetics and non-ingestible products, but somehow, it was still ok in cough drops, toothpaste, those weird red pistachios, and fruit cocktail cherries. “Why?” you ask. “If we knew that this was a questionable ingredient, why would it still be allowed?” Lobbyists, of course! The Fruit Cocktail Lobby is a surprisingly powerful entity that successfully campaigned to keep Red Dye No. 3 on the table (and in your fruit cocktail) for much longer than it should have been. Industry studies found that without those bright cherries, Fruit Cocktail sales would drop by 40%, which would apparently result in a negative impact on the economy as a whole (if you find this hard to swallow, you aren’t alone). Those lobbyists bought the fruit companies some time, and although some of them still use Red Dye No. 3, many of them are now going with carmine. Carmine is made from beetles, and is not shown to cause tumors at all. It still makes cherries very red. It also makes them much less vegan. You really can’t have it all.
I was incredibly surprised by the importance of the government in the creation and perpetuation of fruit cocktail. Federal regulations led companies to hide their food waste in salable products. The USDA outlined the exact recipe of fruit cocktail so consumers would know what to expect. And finally, the FDA made damn sure that those cherries could stay a shocking red…even if there weren’t enough of them.