Two years ago Starbucks’ president wrote in a blog that the popular coffee purveyor would stop using a red food dye made from bugs. But Starbucks was far from the only one using this insect-based food dye in its products. As it turns out, it is used in Skittles and other candies.
The food dye he was referring to is cochineal extract, which is extracted from the female cochineal, a species of insect also referred to as the “true bugs.” Despite what you read, these are not beetles.
And for a long time cochineal was one of many dyes that only had to be listed as “natural color” on ingredients lists. But since it became evident that cochineal causes severe allergic reactions in some people — possibly the weirdest food allergy known to man — the Food and Drug Administration requires carmine and cochineal extract to be explicitly identified in all ingredients lists.
So anytime you see ingredients listed in your favorite foods that include carmine, cochineal extract or natural red 4, you can be certain that product contains these bugs. No wonder they taste so good.
Cochineals are harvested for processing purposes in Peru and the Canary Islands on plantations of prickly pear cacti, the bugs’ preferred host. The insects are sun-dried, crushed, and splashed in an acidic alcohol solution to produce something called carminic acid, the pigment that eventually becomes carmine or cochineal extract. It takes a staggering 70,000 insects to produce just one pound of dye.
Cochineal is also used as a dye in cosmetics products, including lipstick, and even used in pill coatings. It was first discovered when Europeans descended on South America in the 1500s, they noticed the Aztecs were producing vibrant dyes from these bugs that retained their color for long stretches. Soon thereafter, it became a trade good.
Besides it being an allergen to a small few, cochineal has no known health risks. And while it may be made from bugs, it seems at least for now to be harmless unlike other synthetic red dyes such Red No. 2 and Red No. 40, which are derived from either coal or petroleum byproducts and carry far greater health risks.
Given the option, I’ll take my chances with the bugs.