In 1747, whingey academic Thomas Gray went down in whingey academic history with the publication of his snappily titled poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, the last line of which is ‘ignorance is bliss’. Turns out though, he may well have had a point.
Take a moment to enjoy the company of a very soothing older gentleman from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science as he explains that the red colouring in quite a lot of food is actually made up of crushed bugs.
As demonstrated in the video, all that is needed to turn these little critters into a nifty scarlet dye is a few drops of water.
So, what are these little critters?
According to this explainer from Business Insider the insects are native to Mexico and South America and derive their distinctive red colour from their diet; the tiny little guys live on cactus plants and eat the red berries that grow there. After which they are harvested by farmers in their millions, it is suggested that it takes “70,000 cochineal bugs to make just one pound of cochineal dye. Peru alone produces 200 million tonnes of the dye each year”. They are then dried, crushed and mixed with water. Ay voila! Bright red buggy goodness.
What’s more is that this process has been going on – at least in the Americas – for as long as anyone can remember. According to the University of Minnesota , Europeans first discovered cochineal’s use as a dye in 1523 and records show that merchants in Belgium were importing cochineal from Spain by the 1540s. So having the caught the, ah, cochineal bug nearly 500 years ago, what are they being used for these days?
You may remember the furore a few years ago when Starbucks got themselves into some hot water with the vegan and vegetarian communities by using cochineal to colour their frappucino products, but they are by no means the only big companies to have found a use for the dye. As stated in the video above, cochineal is also sometimes referred to as ‘carmine’ or ‘carminic acid’ presumably by companies wanting to avoid saying, ‘Hi, there’s bug stuff in this!’.
Also, according to Wired it also goes by the names E120 and Natural Red 4. Wired are also at pains to point out that there is a difference between beetles, of the kind that might make people squeamish when it comes to food, and scale insects, which the cochineal actually is. In fact “they last shared a common ancestor 350 million years ago” so, don’t worry about tiny little ground up wings in your food.
The real question here is about how much of a concern this is on a personal level, as a product it’s fairly unavoidable, essentially if something has a red colouring then it’s worth double checking the label if this whole tale has made you squeamish. Having said that, while it isn’t kosher or vegan friendly, cochineal dye is considered safe, accessible, renewable and a source of income in some otherwise fairly resource-light communities.
Of course, it can’t really be denied that ewww, bugs.