The next time you pull out the red food coloring from your cupboards to make frosting for a cake, keep in mind that the food coloring may have been made from ground up bugs. The food colorings carmine and cochineal are in fact made from ground up insects – Dactylopius Coccus bugs. These bugs live on Opuntia Cactus plants in South and Central America. When harvested and dried, roughly 20% of the volume of these insects is carminic acid; this is what is used to create food coloring. The bugs are harvested by scraping them off the cactus or collecting them in small baskets or nests attached to the cactus. It takes about 70,000 bugs to make a pound of coloring! These particular food colorings are sometimes labeled as “natural coloring”, “cochineal extract”, “carmine”, and “artificial coloring” on food labels. For obvious reasons, food manufacturing companies have made the decision to stay away from adding “crushed bugs” to their ingredients lists. These colorings were used by the Aztecs and other Indian populations in Mexico for a variety of reasons (e.g., food coloring, coloring clothing). Today, cochineal extract and carmine can be found in products like yogurt, candy, fruit juices, and even in cosmetics. These “natural” food colorings have increased in popularity over the past few years as some have suggested links between synthetic food dyes and cancer. The food colorings derived from bugs are generally considered to be safe, however, Chung et al, (2001) report a number of cases of allergic reactions after individuals consumed carmine, and reference other studies in their paper where carmine ingestion or exposure contributed to asthma, alveolitis, and food allergy. Understandably, certain cultures or groups of people are opposed to eating insects for religious or nutritional reasons, and then of course there is always the “eww” factor.
Chung K, Baker J, Baldwin J, Chou A: Identification of carmine allergens among three carmine allergy patients. Allergy (2001), Vol 56, pps. 73-77.