carmine, crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I.75470, E120, natural colouring. If you see any of these on a label then you know that cochineal is the source of the red colouring inside.
It may come as a shock to learn that cochineal is derived from the cochineal insect,(Dactylopius coccus), a small bug, native to South America and Mexico.The insects are farmed and the females collected for their vivid red dye. No, they don’t milk them – they crush them…
Peru is the largest exporter of cochineal, which finds it’s way into food products, fabric and wool dyes, paints and pigments and into cosmetics like lipstick and blusher.
Wikipedia notes that cochineal has come back into favour as a food colouring because “unlike many synthetic commercial red dyes, it is not toxic or carcinogenic”. However, it does still present a problem to some people, who may have medical, ethical or religious reasons to avoid foodstuff derived from insects. These include:
vegetarians and vegans
children with ADHD or other issues with hyperactivity
a small percentage of people with an allergy to cochineal. It can be a serious enough allergy to cause anaphylactic shock
I grew up knowing about the cochineal beetle and it has always been a source of creepy fascination for me 🙂 Especially when I was younger, the thought of grown-ups squashing beetles to make red colouring, well, it seemed very definitely weird!
I would imagine it being a very real dilemma for a lot of people. Do they go with the squashed beetle sweeties or juice, or stick with the possibly toxic, lab-made, chemical coloured food?
There’s a strawberry flavoured milk I love to get occasionally. It’s a bio-dynamic milk, local and family owned. They don’t use cochineal or synthetic red colour. They’ve chosen to use beetroot to colour their product. You’d never know. It’s as pretty a pink as you’ll ever get without a hint of beetroot flavour 🙂
I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel funny about that slice of Red Velvet cake…