What is Cochineal, anyway?
Cochineal is, indeed, a food additive derived from an insect. Or, more properly, the stuff we call cochineal is a chemical extract of carminic acid bodies of squished female scale insects. (No actual bug “parts” should be left in the dye.)
Where is Cochineal used?
On food and cosmetics labels, cochineal may have many different names: cochineal, carmine, carminic acid, Natural Red 4, or E120. You may be surprised where you find it–Campari, sausage, and artificial crab are some unexpected foods that use cochineal for more intense colors. Many yogurts and juices also use cochineal, and most lipsticks and blushes.
Is Cochineal safe?
A few individuals may be allergic to the compounds produced by these insects, and improved labeling is a good idea.
The FDA is mainly concerned with allergies in making their labeling decision, probably because cochineal has proved non-toxic in lab tests.
What would it mean if we didn't use Cochineal?
Our other choices for red dyes in our foods or cosmetics aren’t very appealing. FD&C Red Dye #2, derived from coal tar, is a good example. (Artificial colors are given the prefix FD&C, or Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, since that is the law they are regulated under.)
FD&C Red #40 is the most commonly used other red dye, and is also derived from tar. (And, interestingly, CSPI wants it banned
It would be a great thing if food had less processing, packaging, and added ingredients to make it look good. (Teal Blue food is just Wrong, in my book.) However, the likelihood of that happening is rather low, alas. So keeping cochineal in our range of choices gives us a relatively safe option for food and lip coloring.
More important to me, Cochineal supports subsistence farmers in poor parts of the world. This insect is an important cash crop! From an NPR story about cochineal:
“Even though a full pound of cochineal sells for just $1.30, harvesting the bug earns enough money to feed and clothe a whole family in the impoverished highlands region of Peru. An estimated 40,000 Peruvian families depend on harvesting the bugs —which belong to a class of scale insects — to make a living.”
By not rejecting cochineal in your food or makeup, you get to not only support farmers raising their tiny pink cash-cows, you can connect with the rich history of this pigment.
Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America used these insects to create rich red colors for textiles for centuries. After Europeans arrived, they excitedly adopted this pigment over their previous one–also made from scale insects!
Actually, there’s lots of actual bug parts in your food all the time, and the FDA knows and approves of it, Insects happen.
It’s part of living on Earth, and we just can’t get things sterile, no matter how much we try.
Why not join the rest of the world and start adding insects as a regular part of your diet? They are regularly eaten around the world, and are quite nutritious. Until the Western world decided that bottom feeding shrimp and lobsters were OK, and insects were nasty, nearly everyone ate insects as a regular part of their diet.
Join me in celebrating a sustainable, low-impact protein source!
Or, at least join me in not worrying about a tiny amount of bug-derived compounds in your food.