On the subject of red food coloring, for years grade school kids have been telling each other that the reddish hue in their lunch meat is made from ground beetles. As it happens, the story is true. Well, maybe not “ground beetles” exactly. “Ground beetle extract” is more like it. And it’s not just the odd lunch meat. More than a few products in present-day supermarkets owe their red, orange or pink tints to the Mexican cochineal beetle.
Cochineal is one of the oldest red pigments, used for centuries by native peoples in Central America, especially for clothing dye. The beetles were collected, boiled briefly, dried, ground and soaked to extract the color (the process is strikingly similar today). In fact cochineal dye was one of the earliest exports from the New World to the Old, as it was up to ten times more potent than dyes made from the Old World’s magic color bug, the kermes beetle (kermes having been used since ancient times to produce so-called “king’s red”). Cochineal was an important commodity up until the 1850’s when red Alizarin was isolated, causing Mexican bug futures to fall precipitously.
Yet it’s found favor again in recent years as it is natural, nontoxic and non-carcinogenic, and possesses many other attributes that food and ingredients companies find desirable (resistance to fading, heat stability, that sort of thing). Today it can be found in all manner of things, from clothes and cosmetics to juices, candies, cold cuts, sausages, pie fillings, jams, cheeses and gelatin desserts. Often it’s listed under the name carmine, carminic acid, or sometimes just “cochineal”, but mostly just as “natural and artificial color”. No surprise there.