Bugs in Your Food

2016-12-18-06-46-58Can you find the insects in this ingredient list?

Yep, that’s it, at the very end—carmine—an all-natural food-safe red colouring made from the crushed bodies of the cochineal scale insect (Dactylopius coccus).

I don’t buy much processed food, so I rarely eat carmine, but I was excited to find it listed as an ingredient in the packaged macaroni and cheese I recently bought for a backpacking trip.

The cochineal scale is native to Central and South America, and lives on prickly pear cactus. It has been used as a dye since at least the 15th century, when it was used primarily to colour textiles. For three hundred years, it was one of our only red food-safe dyes. In the late 19th century, synthetic dyes began to replace carmine.

Until the 1820s, Mexico was the sole commercial supplier of carmine to the world, despite efforts to grow the insect elsewhere. At least one of those attempts ended in an environmental disaster. The British tried to establish carmine production in Australia to supply red dye for military uniforms in the 1700s. The insects died, but the cactuses thrived and eventually took over 259,000 square kilometres (100,000 square miles) of the country before being brought under control in the 1920s by the introduction of a moth that eats the cactus.

Carmine production is labour intensive. The insects need to be protected from predators and severe weather, then have to be brushed off the plants by hand at harvest. The insects are dried, crushed, and mixed with various substances to make a range of colours from bright red, to pink, to purple. It takes 80,000-100,000 insects to produce 1 kg of carmine.

Concerns over the safety of synthetic food colouring has led to a resurgence in the use of carmine in recent years, and it’s not unusual (though still not common) to find it included on the ingredient lists of food packages. In fact, you might be surprised how many products on the supermarket shelf contain carmine. Though it is more expensive than synthetic red dyes, it shows up in various cosmetics, candies, alcoholic drinks, fruit juices, sauces, cheese, meat, preserves, and desserts. In the US, the ingredient list is required to say ‘cochineal extract’ or ‘carmine’. In the EU, it might be labelled additive E120, and here in New Zealand, it is usually listed as colouring 120.

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