Seeing Red

What do Minute Maid® or Ocean Spray® ruby red grapefruit juice, Revolutionary War British soldier uniforms, and Almay lipstick have in common? Yes, they’re all red. But there’s more to it than that. They, along with a myriad of other cosmetics, foods, and a few fabrics, all contain a red dye known as cochineal red or its derivative, carmine.

Almost everything these days contains some sort of artificial color. Some people avoid these dyes, while most don’t think twice even if they do happen to read the label. Even better, cochineal isn’t artificial. It’s a natural product that has been used for hundreds of years.

So just what is it, and where does it come from?

Squished bugs.

Yup. We’ve all been wearing bug juice, smearing it onto our faces, and using it to wash down our eggs and toast. Yum yum.

To be more precise, cochineal dye comes from a scale insect native to the Americas. You may have battled other scale insects in the garden or on your houseplants. So small you can barely see them, they attach themselves to some part of the stem or leaf and suck out the nutrient-rich juices. Most have a hard outer shell—more of a shield over their back—that repels sprays and makes them particularly difficult to eradicate. Cochineal scale is an exception in that it lacks the shell.

For the most part, each species of scale insect lives on a specific kind of plant. Dactylopius coccus, the primary species from which we get cochineal dye, has a hankering for prickly pears. (Other members of this scale genus also produce the red color.) Last month when I was hiking in Colorado National Monument, near Grand Junction on the Rockies’ western slope, our trip leader spied a cactus covered with what looked like gooey white fluff. When he swiped a pinkie across one patch, then rubbed his fingers together, they came away bright red. Sure enough—it was an infestation of cochineal scale.

Taking advantage of a teaching moment, our guide explained that the insects are actually farmed on the prickly pear cactus, then harvested, killed, dried, and crushed. It takes approximately 70,000 insects to make one pound of dye.

The FDA used to allow “natural red color” and other vague descriptions to appear on packages, but a recent decision now requires all products containing these insects to be labeled as such. This is most crucial to the small number of people who are allergic to cochineal, but it also allows the rest of us to know when a product contains these insects. Then we have a decision to make. Do we choose to ingest artificial colors with chemical names we can’t begin to pronounce, limit ourselves to products with no additives of any kind… or stick with the “all natural” bugs?

Painting at top by Francis Cotes, 1764.

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