Female Cochineal Beetle and your Food

Interesting. Here’s an organic additive that creates deep and rich reds for your food or cosmetics. Ground up female cochineal beetles. I’ll be looking for these 5mm critters the next time I go shopping and begin reading packaging ingredients.

___Yes, the ingredient is called cochineal, carmine (carminic acid), or E120. Because beetles are insects it is not considered kosher, halal, or vegetarian. Some people can have allergic reactions to it, as was televised by “60 Minutes”. Yes, this kid almost died of anaphylactic shock. I’m always amazed at what is put into our food that we don’t know about. As usual, Canadian labeling laws do not give you any indication of its origins. While I do not have an aversion to eating bugs (they make a great supplemental protein source), I know most other people do. Cochineal can also be used as organic ant repellent.

___It is interesting that “60 Minutes” omitted to tell us of the long history of this dye and its stellar safety record. There was much sensationalism in the story, as if this was a new additive used by evil food manufacturers to poison us all. So much for unbiased reporting.

Female cochineal are flat, wingless, 5mm long, oval shaped scale insects. Dried and crushed they make an all natural, deep red dye for food and cosmetics

Female cochineal are flat, wingless, 5mm long, oval shaped scale insects. Dried and crushed they make an all natural, deep red dye for food and cosmetics

Apparently this is not a Female cochineal beetle, 5mm long, ground up is used as a red dye in food and cosmetics, but a scarab beetle. Cochineal are scale insects. For those entomologists that wrote nasty emails to me condemning me, may you have a lifelong case of phthirus pubis.

Apparently this is not a Female cochineal beetle, 5mm long, ground up is used as a red dye in food and cosmetics, but a scarab beetle. Cochineal are scale insects. For those entomologists that wrote nasty emails to me condemning me, may you have a lifelong case of phthirus pubis.

Cochineal red was used by the Spanish in the 1500s

Cochineal red was used by the Spanish in the 1500s

___This dye and food colouring has a colourful history, and sure is old school:

Cochineal and its close cousin carmine (also known as carminic acid) are derived from the crushed carcasses of a particular South and Central American beetle. These popular colorants, which today are used to impart a deep red shade to fruit juices, gelatins, candies, shampoos, and more, come from the female Dactylopius coccus, a beetle that inhabits a type of cactus known as Opuntia.

Dactylopius coccus was the source of a red dye used by Aztecs and Mexican Indians for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. Those indigenous peoples would collect cochineal insects, briefly immerse them in hot water to kill the beasties and dissolve the females’ waxy coating, and then dry them in the sun. The dessicated insects would then be ground to a fine powder.

The Spaniards immediately grasped the potential of the pigment, so these dried insects became one of the first products to be exported from the New World to the Old. Europeans took to the beautiful, bright scarlet colour immediately both for its vibrant hue and for its extraordinary colorfast properties, ensuring that boatloads of cochineal insects would make the trans-Atlantic trek.

Cochineal beetles exude a sticky white substance. Female beetles suck juice out of cactus

Cochineal beetles exude a sticky white substance. Female beetles suck juice out of cactus

___Of course manufacturers are not going to alert you with “beetle guts” in their ingredients list, so there are many other names for it. Is this unethical or are we just not educated enough?

Most consumers are unaware that the phrases “cochineal extract”, “carmine”, “crimson lake”, “natural red 4”, “C.I. 75470”, “E120”, or even “natural colouring” refer to a dye that is derived from an insect. One reason for its popularity is that, unlike many commercial synthetic red dyes, it is not toxic or carcinogenic…

Carmine is one of the very few pigments considered safe enough for use in eye cosmetics. A significant proportion of the insoluble carmine pigment produced is used in the cosmetics industry for hair- and skin-care products, lipsticks, face powders, rouges, and blushes. A bright red dye and the stain carmine used in microbiology is often made from the carmine extract, too. The pharmaceutical industry uses cochineal to colour pills and ointments.

___You learn something new everyday. Science is so cool. I appreciate how organic compounds can be used in our food. This proves that bugs can be safely eaten. When I see bugs being eaten in Thailand it intrigues me. It is comforting to know that we all eat bugs on a daily basis and just did not know it.

Addendum Mar 28 2012: Crushed bugs give Starbucks Frappucino its pretty pink colour: This is so funny because it is NOT news. Ditto Starbucks bugs vegan with Frappuccino dye made from ground up insects, but for those allergic to the insects, at least there are some substitutes that are being used.

18 thoughts on “Female Cochineal Beetle and your Food

  1. Erica

    You find this comforting, that we eat bugs on a daily basis? Maybe it is to you, but I find ‘disturbing’ to be a better word! Even moreso because it is not common knowledge. Yuck!!

  2. dontai Post author

    Erica, I do not consciously eat bugs on a daily basis. I am a realist though. Bugs are too ubiquitous to avoid. They are wherever we can live. To eliminate them would be to eliminate ourselves. Bugs are also environmentally friendly. Many Asian countries eat bugs as a common supplement to their diet. I recall that Thailand is one of these countries.

    If I did go to a country that had deep fried ants for sale on the streets I would certainly buy and eat some. Low fat, high protein, inexpensive. Tasty, maybe. bugs may be the next North American food breakthrough.

  3. Theresa


    Where did you get the photo of the cochineal beetle at the top of this article? I’d love to contact the copyright owner and use it in a project.


  4. derrick

    You have the wrong graphic for the Cochineal scale insect, it is not a beetle. The picture you have is of a scarab beetle which not a scale insect or where they get the red dye from. You should learn the difference between the 2.

  5. Ron

    Derrick is correct. The female cochineal insect is soft – no shell – and has only vestigial legs. For more info and photos, search \cochineal insect\ at http://www.bugguide.net

    I can’t figure out where this \beetle\ thing comes from, but it’s dead wrong!

  6. rachel

    As Derrick and Ron say, the “beetle” picture is completely wrong. It’s now being replicated throughout the net – wrong information spreads fast it seems! Please get rid of it. It’s easy enough to find images of the right bug online if you take the time to look. It’s not a beetle of any kind; it’s a scale insect – a bug. Do change it!!

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  8. madeline

    Hey I think this is a great little article overviewing these bugs. Just wanted to let you I was researching them for my own blog and I wanted to say that I used some of these pics.

  9. dontai Post author

    That’s a nice article you wrote. It is important to understand the source of our food, no matter how seemingly disgusting. Some cultures such as Thailand and Indonesia regularly serve up bugs as roadside snacks. They are an excellent source of protein. I’m still not ready for deep fried cockroaches, no matter how tasty.

  10. entomology grad student

    Please change the picture associated with this post! It is the first thing that comes up when you do a Google image search of “cochineal.” I am teaching a class called “Insects and People” and today we just did the lab where we do tie-dye with cochineal. I do not want images of a scarab beetle tagged as cochineal floating around the internet to misinform my students. While beetles and scale insects are both in the Class Insecta, they are in completely different orders! It’s like calling a house cat a blue whale (they’re both in the Class Mammalia). This make may seem like small potatoes to you, but this is a big mistake.

  11. third party logistics

    People don’t seem to pay too much attention these days about the quality of intake that they are using. it is nice to see you posting about such an important issue.

  12. Pingback: Pigment Sourcing Goes Old School | The Canvas of Another Color

  13. sheila

    personally i thot, ‘ewww gross”, when i first began to read this but realistically people have been eating bugs for centuries and there are so many more gross and disgusting things we eat everyday without even realizing it. ( by the by some things we do know how its made and is very disturbing and unhealthy and we still eat it) i would much rather have a ground up beetle which is basically ground to a powder than have a synthetic dye which can affect kids with a hyperactive side effect or can cause cancer. of course there are other plants and what not that can be used as well but in the grand scheme of things is it really that big of a deal? for me no and i think if everyone looked at this in a realistic view alot of people wouldnt be so upset about it. but im not judging anyones view. as for the picture of the beetle it does say underneath it that it is not the correct beetle.

  14. Tyler

    it is obvious you are a shill for the NWO propaganda machine. So what if people in Thailand eat bugs, how ingenious are the Thai people that do or do you see them squatting in the mud like animals as I do. Bugs abound where uncleanliness is found and it is all bread by ignorance. If eating bugs becomes a new trend in the US it will be because the people have lost their way completely and thrown their hands up to satan 100%.
    To the writer: simply because they used the bugs as a dye way back in the day it does not mean they put it in peoples’ food. Dyes were used for clothing, not for eating so it is a relatively new and evil ploy to keep people sick and dying. Look at the rates of cancer as of late yet there is more money spent on “cancer research” now than ever. That’s because the research they’re doing is into how to give more people cancer, not to heal them from it. The proof is in the pudding gentlemen and unless you’ve gone completely retarded and blind this is one pudding that has become as unhealthy as it gets.

    [Don: Tyler, I shill for no one, especially the PWO propoganda machine because I have no clue what NWO stands for. Insects are everywhere and are part of our earth. We use bugs to dye clothing and food, and continue to do so to this day. They are inexpensive, organic and through their long use, thought to be safe. No matter that you do not like it, if you live on this earth you cannot get away from insects.]

  15. Connie

    I don’t know of any other insect we HIDE in our food. Sure, there are many people who like to eat insects and more power (and protein) to them. But there are also people, like me who have allergies or sensitivities to certain foods and have to avoid them. I am sensitive to the Carmine extract made from the Cochineal insect. I suffer an immediate (within 1/2 hr.) and many times very embarrassing case of total and sudden diarrhea. I MUST avoid this colored additive at all costs when out in my car, at dinner, at the movies at work or whatever. But this particular additive is not labeled properly. It is most often just called ‘natural coloring’ on the food label. There are many natural colorings so this doesn’t help me at all. For me and many others, we need to know if the red dye in our food is carmine (cochineal) but the label won’t tell us….probably because the food manufacturer doesn’t want people to know it is an insect coloring. But this is unfair to the many people who cannot eat this additive and cannot know for certain if it is hidden in their food.

    [Don: Hi Connie. Food allergies are very serious, as you know. Both the Canadian and US governments are not strict enough with food additives of any kind, so we really do not know exactly what we are eating. Unfortunately there is also no known movement to change their lackadaisical views either. I have long given up on them.

    As with my daughter’s milk allergy, the only safe and proven food inspection agency in North America is the Kashruth system, or Jewish Dietary Law. Jewish law prohibits adding insects to food, so if you buy kosher food you will be safe. I am not asking you to convert to Judaism here, but follow their laws more closely. I have called them up a couple of times to clarify their stand on food labeling and they are very helpful, open and friendly. Be assured that they are much more serious about food than either governments. We order kosher food for my daughter when flying by air, and the food is really better quality than the regular fare.

    It is frustrating to not know what exactly we are eating, and also very dangerous. May you have success in avoiding this food additive, natural as it is.

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