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Scale insects are strange, tiny animals, often with no visible legs or antennae. They kind of look like plant pimples. Cochineal scales live on prickly pear, and cover their wee bodies in a white, fluffy wax. Why are these little insects so red under all that fluff? Carminic acid (their red dye) repels ants. Their pigment evolved as a chemical weapon against predation.

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Until 2009, cochineal was one of many dyes that fell under the umbrella term "natural color" on ingredients lists. But because cochineal provokes severe allergic reactions in some people, the Food and Drug Administration requires carmine and cochineal extract to be explicitly identified in ingredients lists.

(Portions of this post first appeared at in 2009)

Cochineal it is neither toxic nor known to be carcinogenic. However, the dye can induce an anaphylactic-shock reaction in a small number of people, due to impurities in the preparation, not due to the carminic acid.

The insects are killed by immersion in hot water (after which they are dried) or by exposure to sunlight, steam, or the heat of an oven. Each method produces a different colour which results in the varied appearance of commercial cochineal. The insects must be dried to about 30 percent of their original body weight before they can be stored without decaying. It takes about 155,000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal.

Nearly all the insect contaminants allowed in your food (coffee: 10 percent infestation of beans allowed) are considered “aesthetic” defects. It’s not unsafe, it just freaks people out. Are convenience, perfection, and sterility really the most important things to think about when choosing foods? What about how it was grown, or how many resources are used to package and ship it? What about the welfare of the people who produced and manufactured it?

Today, cochineals are harvested mainly in Peru and the Canary Islands on plantations of prickly pear cacti, the bugs' preferred host. There, the insects are sun-dried, crushed, and dunked in an acidic alcohol solution to produce carminic acid, the pigment that eventually becomes carmine or cochineal extract, depending on processing. About 70,000 insects are needed to produce a pound of dye.

So while the thought of eating bugs may be a little alarming, take solace in knowing it's the more "natural" option. Unless you're allergic to carminic acid, you're vegan or completely against the consumption of bugs for reasons of humanity, a little insect never hurt anybody. 

“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.”

Cochineal insects, as they're known, are scale insects that, in their pre-crushed state, look like this: 

The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid, typically 17-24% of dried insects' weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal. Today, carmine is primarily used as a colorant in food and in lipstick.

Pass it on: Unless you're allergic to it, cochineal extract probably isn't a health concern.

In fact, cochineal dye has been around for centuries, although that probably doesn't decrease the gross-out factor a whole lot.

Much of the red coloring we use in food is actually made of crushed bugs. Yep, creepy, crawly bugs. 

The idea that any business would try to feed insects to a largely bug-averse populace may seem remarkable, but consider the alternatives: if it doesn't come from a bug, it may come from something worse. [No Creepy Crawlies Here: Gallery of the Cutest Bugs]

Polish cochineal is another dye, which was widely used until the mid 19th century as a textile dye. It was not used as a food dye. Polish cochineal is also derived from an insect, the Margarodes polonicus, found in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.

Cochineal is one of the few natural and water-soluble colorants that resist degradation with time. It is the most light- and heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural colorants and is even more stable than some synthetic food colours.

Let me restate that: the FDA *estimated* the scope of the problem based on three allergic reactions in 10 years. Cochineal has proved non-toxic in lab tests. For the majority of the population, cochineal is a safe and naturally derived food coloring.

Food Facts explores the weird world of the chemicals and nutrients found in our food, and appears on MyHealthNewsDaily on Fridays. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily on Twitter @MyHealth_MHND.  

Here is a giant list of all the bugs in your food allowed by the FDA. Americans live in a world of highly processed foods and products. I happily eat the allowed “up to 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams” of chocolate that is allowed as manufacturing contaminants. Because, CHOCOLATE, y’all.

According to a distributor cited by Angel Flinn at Gentle World:


There are lots of actual bug parts in your food, and the FDA knows and approves of it. Insects happen. It’s part of living on Earth, and we just can’t get things completely sterile, no matter how much we try.

It has become commercially valuable again.[9] One reason for its popularity is that many commercial synthetic red dyes were found to be carcinogenic.[10]

Aside from its role as an allergen, cochineal has no known health risks, although those who keep kosher or choose not to eat animal products will want to keep their distance. In addition to food, cochineal is used as a dye in cosmetics products, including lipstick, and at least one person has reported a severe allergic reaction to a cochineal dye used in a pill coating. [9 Weirdest Allergies]

Check your labels, but maybe let go of the worry about a tiny amount of bug-derived compounds in your food. I mean, come on. You have mites on your face.

Cochineal insects can be found on prickly pear cacti in the North American deserts, where they spends most of their lives sucking away on the plants' sap. They produce a bitter, crimson-colored pigment called carminic acid, which they store in their guts and use to ward off predators. 

Cochineal may be made from bugs, but other synthetic red dyes such as Red No. 2 and Red No. 40, which carry far greater health risks, are derived from either coal or petroleum byproducts. Compared with these sources, bugs might sound positively appetizing. 

The cochineal (/kɒtʃᵻˈniːl/ koch-i-NEEL or /ˈkɒtʃᵻniːl/ KOCH-i-neel; Dactylopius coccus) is a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the natural dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America as well as Mexico and Arizona, this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. These insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti, then are brushed off and dried.

Words to look out for are carminic acid, carmine, or cochineal extract, says Alderink in a video for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Starbucks ditched the dye completely, but cochineal dye is still widely used in the food industry -- just check the labels on colored Jell-O packages, candies and yogurts for the words carmine, carminic acid or cochineal extract.

This is the name of an azo dye, E124, which bears no resemblance with cochineal, but produces a similar colour, hence the (confusing) name.

One of the best known is cochineal, a red color additive derived from a scale insect called, appropriately, the cochineal scale (Dactylopius coccus). Cochineal is a naturally occurring compound that’s been used by humans for hundreds of years, and provides an important source of cash for a lot of rural Central and South American people.

"Cochineal dye has been around for centuries. It is a natural, renewable resource," Alderink explains in a video. "And in my opinion, it's just plain cool."

Screengrab from Starbucks on YouTubeStarbucks is coming under fire from vegans for using ground-up bugs to color its Frappuccinos, but the use of cochineal insects is actually common in the food industry.

And while cochineal dye definitely has an ick-factor, the alternatives are synthetic, including one dye that is made from coal tar sludge, according to Bob Alderink of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Carmine is the name of the colour pigment obtained from the insect Dactylopius coccus (old name Coccus cacti), that lives on cacti from the genus Opuntia. The insect is native to tropical South and Central America and produces the pigment as a deterrent against other insects. The pigment can be obtained from the body and eggs of the insect. It is still used as an organic ant-repellent.

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