Cochineal Red Dye From Bugs

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Cochineal red dye from these bugs, image by Wikimedia Commons CC-SA2.0 Magnus Manske
Cochineal bugs, Image CC-SA2.0 de Magnus Manske

You pick up a food item, read its label, and see among the ingredients “cochineal” or “carmine.” This means cochineal red dye food colorant. You’re not sure how—or from what—it is made, so your mind passes on to other things. Should it?

Public Alarm

In the 1970’s, the public was distressed to learn that Red Dye No. 2 is a suspected carcinogen. This led to removal of the dye from foods, most notably with the removal of all our red M&M’s. For food in generally, replacements were found, such as Red Dye No. 40. Still, the reputation of artificial dyes was irretrievably damaged, leading to a renewed interest in natural-occurring colorants. But could a suitable, natural-occurring substitute be found?

Replacing Red No. 2cochineal red dye

This brought about renewed interest in cochineal. This natural dyestuff comes from, of all things, an insect. In fact, it comes from the rather ugly, even creepy, female cochineal insect, a kind of flying insect, a scale insect—Dactylopius coccus. An image of it can be seen at the top left of this article. At the bottom right is another image. From these bugs comes cochineal [AKA carmine] red dye?

cochineal red dye

Cochineal Red Dye: Processing?

How, though, is the coloring agent obtained from the insect? The “bugs” are killed and dried. Their color, derived from carminic acid (see image) is extracted using alcohol. Various modifications of technique, plus the use of additives, affect the shade of color produced.

Do you find the idea of consuming foods with this additive in it repulsive? If so, it might be interesting to note that in some lands, insects in the form of insects represent a fair portion of the diet. In addition, in the Bible, John the Baptizer subsisted for some time on “insect locusts and wild honey.”- Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6.

Note: You might also enjoy Yum! Cicada Stir Fry


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One thought on “Cochineal Red Dye From Bugs

  • Lee jihyeon

    Thank you. This is really helpful. I will make sure to watch out for food products that are red and check the ingredients for “cochineal” or “carmine.” This will help me when I am visiting the United States coming from Korea.

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