Cochineal: it’s a bug AND a feature!

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So much misinformation is being published right now about Cochineal, I thought a post that explains what it is, how it’s made, why it’s relatively harmless, and why I support labeling but oppose a ban, might be useful.

What is Cochineal, anyway?

Cochineal is, indeed, a food additive derived from an insect. Or, more properly, the stuff we call cochineal is a chemical extract of carminic acid from the bodies of squished female scale insects.  (No actual bug “parts” should be left in the dye.)

Scale insects look quite different from typical insects. Tiny, with no visible legs or antennae, they kind of look like plant pimples.
A cochineal scale is about the the size of a big-headed pin. Cochineal insects are a natural predator of prickly pear, and cover themselves in a white, fluffy wax.  Here’s a link to their proper taxonomic classification. They are NOT beetles.

Why are these little insects so red under all that fluff? Eisner et al. (1980) determined carminic acid (the red dye) repels ants. This pigment may have evolved as a chemical weapon against predation.

You can see a nice travel diary of how the insects are reared, collected, and then turned into dye in Mexico at the Perfect Red site. There are a wonderful series of larger photos of the process at Bugwood.  It takes about 60,000 insects to make one pound of dye (although estimates on that number vary widely!)

Where is Cochineal used?

On food and cosmetic labels, cochineal may have many different names: cochineal, carmine, carminic acid, Natural Red 4, or E120. You may be surprised where you find it–Campari, sausage, and artificial crab are some unexpected foods that use cochineal for more intense colors.  Many yogurts and juices also use cochineal, and most lipsticks and blushes.

Is Cochineal safe?

A few individuals may be allergic to the compounds produced by these insects, and improved labeling is a good idea.  The FDA reached this conclusion in a recent document.  Some of the evidence that helped them reach that conclusion:

“we identified three adverse events over an approximately 10-year period that involved products containing carmine or cochineal extract in which those color additives did not or probably did not appear on the ingredient list….We applied a reporting rate of 1 percent to this figure to obtain our estimate of 31 adverse events per year.”

Note that the FDA is *estimating* the scope of the problem based on 3 allergic reactions in 10 years. (If you’re curious, you can find an very extensive world-wide list of adverse reactions to cochineal here. It’s not common, but it can be quite serious.)

The FDA is mainly concerned with allergies in making their labeling decision, probably because cochineal has proved non-toxic in lab tests.

The FDA also recognized that some consumers might want to avoid eating/using products containing cochineal for non-medical reasons. (They did not actually use the words “squeamish” or “grossed out”, but I sure read that between the lines of the report.)

Therefore, the FDA decided the the benefits of increased labeling greatly outweighed the costs, and that more labeling was needed.  So, now all products containing cochineal need to say that, rather than just using the vague phrase “natural colors.”  That’s fine by me!

What would it mean if we banned Cochineal?

CSPI has called for a ban on cochineal and carmine.  Our other choices for red dyes in our foods or cosmetics aren’t very appealing. FD&C Red Dye #2, derived from coal tar,  is a good example.  (Artificial colors are given the prefix FD&C, or Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, since that is the law they are regulated under.)

FD&C Red #40 is the most commonly used other red dye, and is also derived from tar.  (And, interestingly, CSPI wants it banned too!)

It would be a great thing if food had less processing, packaging, and added ingredients to make it look good.  (Teal Blue food is just Wrong, in my book.)  However, the likelihood of that happening in the US is rather low, alas.  So keeping cochineal in our range of choices gives us a relatively safe option for food and lip coloring.

More important to me, Cochineal supports subsistence farmers in poor parts of the world. This insect is an important cash crop!  From an NPR story about cochineal:

“Even though a full pound of cochineal sells for just $1.30, harvesting the bug earns enough money to feed and clothe a whole family in the impoverished highlands region of Peru. An estimated 40,000 Peruvian families depend on harvesting the bugs — which belong to a class of scale insects — to make a living.”

By not rejecting cochineal in your food or makeup, you get to not only support farmers raising their tiny pink cash-cows, you can connect with the rich history of this pigment.

Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America used these insects to create rich red colors for textiles for centuries.  After Europeans arrived, they excitedly adopted this pigment over their previous one–also made from scale insects! I’ll have to do another post just on the fascinating history of this pigment some other time.

OMGBUGZINMAIFOODZ! YUCK!

Actually, there’s lots of actual bug parts in your food all the time, and the FDA knows and approves of itInsects happen.

It’s part of living on Earth, and we just can’t get things sterile, no matter how much we try.

Why not join the rest of the world and start adding insects as a regular part of your diet? They are regularly eaten around the world, and are quite nutritious. Until the Western world decided that bottom feeding shrimp and lobsters were OK, and insects were nasty, nearly everyone ate insects as a regular part of their diet.

Join me in celebrating a sustainable, low-impact protein source!

Or, at least join me in not worrying about a tiny amount of bug-derived compounds in your food.

Read more about Cochineal: (please feel free to suggest references!)

Read more about Entomophagy (Insects as food)

28 thoughts on “Cochineal: it’s a bug AND a feature!

  1. Very timely. I was just telling my wife and sis-in-law about Cochineal yesterday. There are definitely a lot worse additive in food and cosmetics than a little bug juice. At least Carmine is a pronounceable word.

  2. We ought to have a bug recipe collection for those that like to get over themselves and get back to a good diet.

    Maybe you know, but I was also under the impression that the cochineal insects will slowly kill the host plant.

    You mentioned kermes which is/was original red used in Europe from a middle eastern scale insect, but there was also another bug based red dye that there is evidence of use going back even further – it has been identified as the dye used to make a persian style carpet that is 2500 years old (The Pazyryk Carpet). “St. John’s Blood” comes from the “Polish cochineal” and “Armenian cochineal” a pair of scale insect species in the Porphyrophora genus common in the Ukraine and Poland.

  3. David Harmon

    And another primary alternatives would be annatto, which, IIRC, has rather worse (more common) allergy issues.

  4. Ktesibios

    I think that your explanation of the “FD&C” prefix might be in error. AFAIK, it means that the dye is approved for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics, as opposed to “D&C”, which means that it is approved only for use in drugs and cosmetics.

    People ingest much larger quantities of foods than they do drugs or cosmetics, hence additives approved for the former have to be proven safe in significantly larger doses than those intended only for the latter applications.

  5. Dave

    I think I’ve seen these. Not only in The Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix, but IN Phoenix. Not just IN Phoenix, but on the cactus in front of MY apartment!!! I never looked closely. I just assumed that it was probably some type of fungus or possibly mold. Could you please do me a favor and comment on whether or not they thrive in Arizona? I would just plain love to blow some people’s minds with this!!

  6. The incoming FDA regulations requiring cochineal to be listed on food ingredients is going to make a lot of vegetarians, Jews and Muslims much happier. (There’s actually an argument that can be made that cochineal isn’t a kashrut issue since it is completely tasteless but I doubt anyone will buy into that argument anytime soon given that the general trend among religious Jews in the last 30 years has been to become more strict rather than less so).

  7. Dave

    I posted my comment above because I moved from Arizona to south Florida last April. In retrospect, I should have just Googled. On the other hand, I very much appreciate the response.

    Here’s a good link about Cochineal not just about in Metro Phoenix, but in general.

    http://www.delange.org/Cochineal/Cochineal.htm

    Here’s what The Agriculture & Natural Resources
    Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County has to say. Not extensive, but useful. I think that the positive note that it ends on should be taken into account by everyone.

    http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/archive/cochinealscale.html

  8. Have you been contacted by Campari yet? They just emailed me wanting me to reassure folks that Campari no longer contains cochineal. Stinko.

  9. Well, that sucks! I thought it was only in the EU that they had removed the cochineal.
    I know that Ocean Spray pink grapefruit stopped using it a while back when people realized what cochineal was in the last PR blitz.
    :(

  10. Chris P

    Well – interesting. I PERSONALLY have had at least 4 bad reactions to Cochineal/Carmine. On of those involved a trip to the emergency room to get atrial fibrulation fixed by having them stop my heart. This was after swallowing half a bottle of Fruitopia.

    Even a couple of pieces of pink liquorice allsorts will cause a reaction, The ingredient was not listed on the box but I later found one with a list of ingredients in German and it WAS on that list.

    Given that anaphylactic shock can be fatal and the carmine relationship is not well known it may be a more prevalent problem than stated.

    There is NO reason to have chemical coloring in food. It’s stupid vanity. I now have to take a calcium blocker everyday just in case I eat something with it in. A waste of a dollar a day.

    Chris P

  11. I am finding it rather funny to see all tbe hysteria about this when cochineal has been added to foods and other things since way before there was “modern industrialised food manufacture”.

    More than fifteen yrs ago I holiday-ed on the rather bleak island of Lanzarote in the Canaries, where it turned out there had been a thriving and economically important cochineal industry in the early 19th century. This supplied the dye to Europe, both for colouring Campari and for dyeing the red coats of the British army. The industry pretty much died out in the mid-19th century because cochineal was replaced by artificial dyes.

    Given cochineal’s history as an “ancient secret of native people” (notably the South American Indian tribes) I would have thought all the usual idiots who rant on about wanting food to be “natural” would be loudly INSISTING on cochineal rather than nasty evil chemical “Red Dye #xz”

  12. Chris P

    So are you guys advocating eating poisonous mushrooms and toadstools because they are “natural” too? There are plenty of natural things that are NOT good for you.

    Natural food afficianados would want minimal coloring. THe effects of cochineal on certain people have been only recently discovered. Like the celebrity who had mercury poisoning because he ate too much sushi things will change. Presumably some foods will become poisonous too.

  13. Thanks for this important post. My sister called me all alarmed about what she had heard and held up the phone for me to listen to the taped news story. It’s always nice to have the facts. Thanks to Doug Taron for linking to this site, which is how I found you!

  14. Labeling is great. I won’t buy products labeled containing aspartame because I have questions about its long-term safety

    Banning, however, is not. I wouldn’t presume to say that NO ONE should be allowed to eat aspartame just because I do not want to.

    EVERYONE has sensitivities to things. I cannot tolerate carrots – a bottle of juice that was colored with “purple carrot extract” set me off.

    We can’t ban everything that anyone might possibly react to; there would be nothing left to eat.

    I really hope the hysteria about “We must get this banned!” does not grow in the future.

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