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How Carmine, the Red Dye Made From Bugs, Makes It Into Your Food

carmine
Ground dry cochineal bugs, parasitic insects that are each less than a quarter-inch (6 millimeters) long, are used to make carmine dye. DESIREE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Red velvet cake. Strawberry Frappuccino. Ice cream. They don't just satisfy your sweet tooth, they likely share a common ingredient — made from a not-so-common source — that gives them their red to pink hue. Carmine, a natural red dye also labeled as cochineal extract, E120 or natural red 4, owes its beauty to a teeny tiny creepy crawler. Yep, that's right, a bug. The female cochineal bug to be precise.

Despite the possible "eww" factor, this tasteless, FDA approved extract is full of intrigue and cultural history.

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The Cochineal Bug

The cochineal (dactylopius coccus), is a slate bug that feeds on the prickly pear grown throughout Mexico, South America, the southwestern United States and the Canary islands off the coast of Spain. The male cochineal plays its own unique role in nature, but it's the wingless, legless female that interests dye makers. If you go looking for her, you won't find her vibrant red bounty on display; the female cochineal's grey exterior is covered in a white powder that protects her from predators as well as the scorching desert sun. And since the juice from the cacti is her only source of nutrition, she burrows in and is understandably a bit stubborn to release her foothold. In order to harvest the cochineal, the prickly pear pads are cut and brought to factories so the bugs can be pulled off and processed. But it takes some serious people power; approximately 70,000 cochineals are needed just to create one pound (0.45 kilograms) of dye.

Once the harvested bugs are dried in the sun, smashed and mixed with an acidic alcohol solution or even borax, they give way to a vibrant, long-lasting dye. "It can be used to make a range of colors, from scarlet to crimson to peach, purple and pink," says Amy Butler Greenfield, author of "The Perfect Red," in an email interview.

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The Historical Impact of Cochineal

Dyes have been used to color anything from textiles to pottery since the Neolithic Period or New Stone Age, with the majority sourced from vegetables, plants and trees. But bugs have their place too — and not only the cochineal. Another elusive dye associated with wealth and royal status, tyrian purple, was made from the glands of snails.

The cochineal bug is native to Mesoamerica, leading the Aztecs to be the first to discover and use carmine to fill their lives with stunning shades of crimson. When the Spanish arrived to colonize the Americas, they uncovered the power of carmine's cacti-loving source and built enormous wealth by monopolizing the cochineal market, "It [Spain] kept its sources secret, and it had a law making export of the dye punishable by death," shares Greenfield. Coveted by the wealthy, the royal families as well as artists across Europe, the dye understandably created fertile ground for lust and contention.

carmine
In Mala, on the Spanish Canary Island of Lanzarote, a farmer collects cochineal insects for use in making crimson dye. The deep red color, known as carmine, is derived from an acid that the oval-shaped insect produces to fend off predators.
DESIREE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

While those cumbersome and secretive production methods certainly made carmine elusive, the color itself may hold equal importance for its value. "Red is the color of blood, fire, death, and desire, and we can't help but respond to it on many levels. It makes our eyes dilate and our breath come faster, and it's freighted with symbolic meaning. Also, there are very few natural dyes that make a lasting, bright, true red, so good ones had the value of rarity. Ounce for ounce, cochineal is the most powerful natural red dye in the world. That's why it was prized," says Greenfield.

But when industrialization arrived in the mid-19th century, the demand for textiles increased dramatically and created a need for more cost-effective dyes. Chemists began to use petroleum and coal to formulate synthetic ones, ultimately reducing the need for the cochineal bug.

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Carmine's Modern Day Renaissance

The shift towards synthetics may have pushed carmine into the background, but it didn't disappear. And now it's making a comeback, showing up on ingredient lists for anything from cake pops to lipstick. "When reports started linking synthetic reds to cancer and hyperactivity, and as people started taking an interest in natural foods in general, the market for cochineal began to rebound," says Greenfield.

But if carmine is a natural product without the negative long-term effects, why did the coffee giant Starbucks, along with numerous other companies, stop using it to add color to its products? While carmine is safe for the majority of people, it can cause an allergic reaction for a small number of folks. But besides those specific safety concerns, the outcry of vegetarians and vegans, along those who eat only kosher foods, helped advocate for the change. Consuming even a tiny bit of a living being goes against their beliefs and the widespread use of carmine no doubt limited their available food choices.

But one thing rings true no matter whether you find eating a bug appalling, fascinating or dangerous: For such a tiny insect, it has certainly left a vivid mark on culture, feeding our attraction to the beauty and power of red.

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