Beetle Juice

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.

8 thoughts on “Beetle Juice”

  1. I believe Starbucks was using cochineal extract for awhile to color their strawberry smoothie items until many people objected (food items would be no longer considered vegetarian, bugs are gross, etc).

    So what is a good vegetarian alternative for red dye that is not carcinogenic or made from animal products?

    1. Sorry, I meant to mention… I’ve tried beet dye, but it turned out more brown than I had anticipated..

  2. There are natural colors available. Put out by a company called India Tree, if I remember. Pricey but they argue they are natural colors. Not sure about vegetarian.

  3. Honestly, the stuff has been used for centuries and has been found to have NO bad side effects. It’s just silly. If people had any idea of the ‘foreign substances’ the FDA allowed in many commercial foods, not because they add anything beneficial, but strictly because it’s nearly impossible to keep them out, they’d starve. When I read what percentages of things like rat hairs were allowed in hot dogs when I was 15, it turned me off hot dogs for life…of course I never really liked them anyway so maybe it was just a convenient excuse to give my mom for refusing to eat them, because the fruit fly eggs and larva allowed in OJ bother me not at all.

  4. I have images of Michael Keaton in his role as Beetlejuice in the movie every time I see this blog title.

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