During my wild plant walks, we often come across a white puffy growth on the prickly pear cactus. At first, it appears as if it may be some sort of disease, or fungus. When I take this white substance and roll it between my fingers, however, it produces a beautiful deep red (carmine) color. On the surface that doesn’t sound like much, but when I explain this very extract was used for centuries for textiles and also used for make up and even had been used in one of Starbucks signature drink, students often have this look of intrigue and then some disbelief…. After, all this red color is coming from a bug called the cochineal.
A couple of years ago, Starbucks came under fire for the use of this coloring, because it was extracted from a bug. The truth is, several lipstick colors are also produced from the cochineal bug.
The cochineal is a scale insect, that lives on the prickly pear cactus. And, well before the Spaniards arrived, Central and South American Indians used the dye extracted from this insect to color fabrics and other items. When the Spaniards arrived, they were fascinated with this color, as they had nothing like it back home. Soon this dye became an important trade item for the Spaniards.
Traditionally cochineal was used for coloring fabrics. During the colonial period, with the introduction of sheep to Latin America, the use of cochineal increased, as it provided the most intense colour and it set more firmly on woolen garments than on clothes made of materials of pre-Hispanic origin such as cotton, agave fibers and yucca fibers. In general, cochineal is more successful on protein-based animal fibres (including silk) than plant-based material. Once the European market discovered the qualities of this product, the demand for it increased dramatically. By the beginning of the seventeenth century it was traded internationally.Carmine became strong competition for other colourants such as madder root, kermes, Polish cochineal, brazilwood, and Tyrian purple, as they were used for dyeing the clothes of kings, nobles and the clergy. For the past several centuries it was the most important insect dye used in the production of hand-woven oriental rugs, almost completely displacing lac. It was also used for painting, handicrafts, and tapestries. Cochineal-coloured wool and cotton are still important materials for Mexican folk art and crafts.
Cochineal farms used for the collection of the dye
Today, it is used as a fabric and cosmetics dye and as a natural food coloring. It is also used in histology. In artist’s paints, it has been replaced by synthetic reds and is largely unavailable for purchase due to poor lightfastness. When used as a food additive the dye must be included on packaging labels. Sometimes carmine is labelled as E120. A small number of people have been found to have allergies to carmine, ranging from mild cases of hives to atrial fibrillation and anaphylactic shock, with 32 cases documented to date. Carmine has been found to cause asthma in some people. Cochineal is one of the colors that the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group recommends be eliminated from the diet of hyperactive children. Natural carmine dye used in food and cosmetics can render the product unacceptable to vegetarian or vegan consumers. Many Muslims consider carmine-containing food forbidden (haraam) because the dye is extracted from insects, and Jews also avoid food containing this additive (even though it is not treif and some authorities allow its use because the insect is dried and reduced to powder.
Cochineal is one of the few water-soluble colorants that resist degradation with time. It is one of the most light- and heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural organic colorants and is even more stable than many synthetic food colors. The water-soluble form is used in alcoholic drinks with calcium carmine; the insoluble form is used in a wide variety of products. Together with ammonium carmine, they can be found in meat, sausages, processed poultry products (meat products cannot be colored in the United States unless they are labeled as such), surimi, marinades, alcoholic drinks, bakery products and toppings, cookies, desserts, icings, pie fillings, jams, preserves, gelatin desserts, juice beverages, varieties of cheddar cheese and other dairy products, sauces, and sweets.
Today, prickly pear farms exist for the sole purpose of raising cochineal insects for their rich dye. Their history, however, is colored in much interesting detail. So, the next time you eat something that has a reddish hue to it, you may very well be eating some cochineal as well.