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.)
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.
Actually, there’s lots of actual bug parts in your food all the time, and the FDA knows and approves of it. Insects 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!)
- Greenfield, Amy Butler. 2005. A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York.
- Donkin, R. A. 1977. Spanish Red: An Ethnogeographical Study of Cochineal and the Opuntia Cactus. Transactions Of The American Philosophical Society 67 (Part 5): 1-84.
- Eisner, T., et al. 1980. Red Cochineal Dye (Carminic Acid): Its Role in Nature.
Science 208 no. 4447, pp. 1039-1042
- How do I pronounch cochineal? (audio file on page)
Read more about Entomophagy (Insects as food)
- Ento Box: a wonderful project to make insect food beautiful
- How to make sure you are never invited to another potluck again. EVER.
- Are there roaches in your coffee and chocolate? Um. Yes.
- Shellac: It’s a bug AND a feature
- Don Bugito! Insects are and were an important part of pre-European peoples’ diets in the Americas.
- Entomophagy in the news
- Insect nutritional value
- Insect food curriculum!
- The Food Insects Newsletter
- Moths for breakfast
- Silkworms in a can