Color me Carmine: Cochineal bugs in our food and drink

At the liquor store the other day I noticed a bottle of shocking pink tequila, called “Pasión.” It would make a great Valentine’s Day gift (“Candy’s dandy, but liquor’s quicker,” as the saying goes) and is certainly eye-catching. More interesting, I learned that the pink color came from cochineal bugs – as stated right up front on the label!

Most people don’t know about cochineal bugs or the widespread use of colorant that’s extracted from them, but cochineal, or carmine, has been valued for centuries as a red dye. One of the few natural and water-soluble dyes that resists degradation with time, cochineal is the most light-stable, heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural colorants and is even more stable than some synthetic dyes. Moreover, depending on the process used, it yields a range of vibrant colors, from light oranges and pinks to deep crimson.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal, close up

Unfortunately, when you inform people that their raspberry yogurt, maraschino cherries, Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccino, brand of lipstick, or hundreds of other items are colored with this natural extract, most are revolted instead of intrigued. In fact, outraged vegans have pressured Starbucks to look for another, non-insect-derived product to use in the frappuccino concoction (just do a web search for “cochineal and Starbucks”).

So what IS a cochineal bug, exactly?  It is a small, chubby scale insect that feeds on prickly pear cactus, with the scientific name of Dasylopius coccus. There are many species of scale insect. Most are very small (i.e., less than ¼ inch long, some smaller), sedentary insects that suck plant sap with tiny, piercing mouth parts. They belong to the same order of insect that includes aphids, cicadas, and leaf hoppers: the Homoptera.

However, you might not even recognize some scale species as insects. Adult females have no legs or wings and are basically bags of guts and eggs that seem glued to the stems or leaves of their host plant (the smaller, winged males are seldom seen). Some scales have hard, shell-like coverings, and indeed look like tiny shells. Mostly considered plant pests, a few have economic value. For example, shellac is another natural product derived from a different scale insect.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal as they appear feeding on prickly pear cactus

Cochineal bugs are covered with a waxy or powdery white coating, and often cluster on the surface of the prickly pear pads, looking like tiny cotton balls stuck to the plant. But if you squish these cottony balls, your fingers will be covered with copious amounts of a thick, dark red fluid. This intense color has been used to dye fabric for many centuries, and more recently, has become an important colorant in foods and drinks.

Cochineal bugs are native to Central and South America, where their host plants, the cacti, also originated. Both Incas and Aztecs used cochineal as a dye, which was so highly prized that bags of the dried bugs were used as currency or as tribute. The Spaniards took cochineal back to Spain, and during colonial times, cochineal was Mexico’s second-most valuable export after silver. Cochineal was much superior to the red dye used in Europe at that time, and became hugely popular. It was used to dye the cloaks of Roman Catholic cardinals and the “redcoats” used by the British army.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal-dyed yarn

In the mid 1800s, with the advent of chemical dyes, which were cheaper to produce, the demand for cochineal in the fabric industry waned and the industry all but collapsed. But in the late 1900s, the push to use natural products rather than chemical ones in foods have made cochineal and carmine, its purified form, increasingly important as food colorants.  Today cochineal is again produced on a commercial scale.

To quickly summarize the production process: cochineal bugs are allowed to grow on prickly pear pads for about three months. They are then scraped off the pads and thoroughly dried (often sun-dried) for several days. The resulting seed-like pellets are ground and mixed with water to produce cochineal, or are further refined to produce carmine or carminic acid. It takes about 70,000 bugs to make one pound of cochineal extract.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Dried, harvested cochineal

Today most cochineal comes from Peru, the Canary Islands, and Mexico. Check out this YouTube video to see traditional cochineal farming in the Canary Islands. You might also be interested in this great video from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science about cochineal in foods.

If you’d like to learn more, just do an online search for “cochineal bugs” (by the way, they have occasionally been misnamed “cochineal beetles” – but they are NOT beetles). For those of you who prefer old-fashioned reading, Amy Greenfield has written an entire book about the fascinating history of cochineal titled A Perfect Red.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal harvesting in colonial Peru

I have to roll my eyes a little (at least internally) at those people who act horrified when they learn that the red color of their energy drink, or popsicles, or other foods comes from or is enhanced by these insects. In fact, we eat insects all the time. There are government-approved amounts of insects allowed in almost all foodstuffs (also other, ickier stuff such as rat feces, animal hair, and dirt). That chocolate bar, slice of bread, bowl of cornflakes, serving of pasta, dollop of ketchup – all are likely to have bits of insects in them.

I encourage you to visit the exhibit on this theme in our entomology hall, where you can also purchase some unadulterated insect treats from our vending machine. Did you know that the average American eats – unknowingly – one to two pounds of insects per year? But not to worry, insects contain lots of protein and are good for you!

A very few people – vastly fewer than have peanut or wheat allergies – may have an allergic reaction to cochineal extract (one source says the allergy is due to impurities introduced in the production process rather than to the carminic acid). These people should certainly read labels and avoid products that contain cochineal or carmine.  The coloring ingredient may be identified on labels as cochineal extract, carmine, crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, E120, or even “natural coloring.”

Other people do not want to eat cochineal because of ethical or religious concerns (insects are not considered kosher). However, if you are truly concerned about eating or using products containing cochineal, you will have to read the fine print on a lot of products.  Here is a short list of items that may contain cochineal-derived colorant:

  • Frozen meat and fish (e.g., artificial crab meat)
  • Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and powdered drink mixes
  • Yogurts, ice cream and dairy-based drinks
  • Candy, syrups, popsicles, fillings and chewing gum
  • Canned fruits including cherries and jams
  • Dehydrated and canned soups
  • Ketchup
  • Some wines and liqueurs (sadly, according to Wikipedia, as of 2006 carmine is no longer used to give the Italian aperitif Campari its distinctive deep red color)
  • Lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, nail polish, and other cosmetic items
  • Pills, ointments and syrups used in the pharmaceutical industry

Personally, not suffering from a rare allergy or having any ideological qualms, I would far rather ingest a time-honored, natural dye than artificial food colorings made from coal tar, many of which have been proved to be carcinogenic and/or cause behavioral problems (for which reasons an increasing number have been banned from use in foods).

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cheers to that!

I have never seen cochineal insects in Houston, but have found them on prickly pears growing in and around Austin – so they certainly occur in Texas. If you know where some prickly pears are growing, check them out!

The next time somebody bugs you to cook, cook bugs! We recommend these Chocolate Chirp Cookies

Did you know that insects are eaten in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries? They are a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fats and have a very small environmental footprint when compared to other types of livestock.

Think that’s gross?  You are probably ingesting insect parts everyday — you just don’t know it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has something that it calls The Food Defect Action Levels, and this document specifies the acceptable amount of bug bits in your groceries. For real. For example, you can totally have “10 or more whole or equivalent insects and 35 fruit fly eggs per eight ounces of golden raisins.” Yum, extra protein!

Having an exoskeleton makes bugs crunchy on the outside but chewy in the middle, like a 100 Grand Bar. You, on the other hand, are chewy on the outside and crunchy in the middle, like a Take-5. The crunch in the exoskeleton comes from chitin, a long polymer chain that makes up the “shells” of many arthropods — including crabs, lobsters and insects. Interestingly, chitin never shows up in animals with an internal skeleton, which recognizes the chitin as a foreign substance and eliminates it. Allergy sufferers take note: If you are allergic to shellfish, you are also probably allergic to insects. Blame the chitin.

A chiton, which is not to be confused with chitin or a chiton (a type of Greek dress), is a type of marine mollusk in the class Polyplacophora. We have several preserved specimens here at the Museum, and they are awesome. This one once went on a trip to Whiskey Bridge with a group of school kids and was referred to by name as “Mr. Ugly.”

Chocolate Chirp CookiesThe third form of chiton (the Greek clothing style) is less likely to be crunchy and more likely to be stylish in everyday use, but appears to have more than one etymological meaning. The Greek “Khitōn” could be used to describe this simple cloth garment or a type of protective armor, which makes total sense when you think about the chitinous exoskeleton of a bug as its protective armor.

Are you totally hooked? Can’t wait to try some chitinous culinary cuisine? You can wait for more blog posts which will feature critters in your own kitchen, you can check out the books below by other famous entomophagists, or you can come visit us on October 26th for Spirits & Skeletons or Oct. 27th for Tricks, Treats & T.Rex — which will both feature a bug chef!

 

From the Test Kitchen of Julia Chitin: Beginner-Appropriate Chocolate Chirp Cookies

Ingredients:
•    Chocolate chip cookie dough of your choice
•    Crickettes (available in the Cockrell Butterfly Center)

Chocolate Chirp CookiesProcedure:
1.    Make sure no one is watching. See Recipe Notes below.
2.    Preheat your oven to the correct temperature as listed on your cookie dough instructions.
3.    Place cookie dough on a baking sheet as you normally would.
4.    Place a single crickette on top of each ball of cookie dough. Don’t be put off if some drumsticks or wings fall off.
5.    Bake as recommended and let cool.
6.    Serve up to your friends and family and enjoy the subtle flavors and audible crunch.

Chocolate Chirp CookiesRecipe Notes:
This recipe is the equivalent of ordering fancy take out and then putting it in your own dishes before the in-laws arrive. Minimal effort for maximum gross out results.

I used to make the cookie dough from scratch using a family recipe, adding in the bugs and mixing well. What I discovered is that the bugs get covered in the dough and aren’t visible. (AND when you are eating cookies with bugs in them, no one actually cares about Nana’s secret recipe.) Save yourself the time — and Nana the heartbreak — and use prepackaged dough.

The crickettes, which generally taste like what they are cooked with or in, will have a slightly nutty flavor and are therefore excellent for replacing nuts in recipes for those with nut allergies.

NOTE: If you have a shellfish allergy, you might also be allergic to insects as well!

Bountiful butterflies plus more on moths: Why you should appreciate both this summer

Houston is brimming is with butterflies this season! Moths, too.

After a dismal showing during last year’s prolonged drought with almost no butterflies at all, this year local butterflies have bounced back with a vengeance! Or maybe “vengeance” isn’t a word usually associated with butterflies. In any case, there are lots of them.

gulf frit1A Gulf Fritillary

I have never seen so many butterflies in my backyard garden – both as babies (caterpillars) and adults. Pipevine swallowtails are particularly abundant right now, and I had dozens of monarchs a few weeks ago. I’ve seen black swallowtails and giant swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, and a few sulphurs as well. I just acquired three small sassafras trees, and they came complete with a couple of my favorite caterpillars: the spicebush swallowtail, which are the inspiration for the giant caterpillar sculpture at the Cockrell Butterfly Center entrance. And I’m not the only one who is seeing an abundance of butterflies; many Houston gardeners have made similar observations.

spicebush cat2A Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

In addition to these garden species, I’ve noticed big numbers of some of the forest-inhabiting butterflies such as hackberry and tawny emperors, question marks, and red admirals. These butterflies typically visit sap flows or rotten fruit, and their caterpillars eat hackberry or elm leaves (or nettles, in the case of red admirals), so to see them you need to take a walk in the wood. I take my dogs walking at “Wortham Island,” a former oxbow bend of White Oak Bayou that is now an off-the-beaten-path wooded area in northwest Houston, and have seen clouds of emperors, lots of question marks, and a red admiral or two. Snout butterflies, another species more common in wooded areas, have appeared in my yard for the first time, sipping water off the sidewalk.

emperors feeding
Tawny emperors feeding

And a new butterfly species may be on the horizon! As we reported in the latest Museum News, a zebra swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus), until now unknown in Houston, was spotted laying eggs on paw paw plants at a local nursery. Hoping that this sighting might not be a complete accident, I’ve planted a couple of paw paws in my yard, and am keeping my eyes open and fingers crossed. Zebra swallowtails are fairly common in the Big Thicket area, less than 100 miles northeast of us. I’ve always said that if people from Cleveland, Texas to Houston would just plant paw paws, we could probably bring this gorgeous butterfly to our area!

Eurytides marcellusZebra swallowtails may be migrating to Houston

On the down side, I have not seen any orange-barred sulphurs for a couple of years, and the polydamas swallowtails, which seemed to be overtaking the pipevine swallowtails, have also been less visible.I’m guessing that the cold winter of 2010-11 may have knocked back the populations of these tropical species, and they haven’t made it back in large numbers yet.

So why is this year so good for butterflies? I can only guess that the weather conditions have been just right this spring and early summer. We’ve had enough rain and lots of warm, sunny weather in between. Certainly all the interest in planting for butterflies can’t hurt. The only reason there are so many pipevine swallowtails and monarchs in my yard is because I’ve had dozens of their caterpillars eating all the Brazilian pipevine and Mexican milkweed I’ve planted. Providing host plants is vital. Of course, where I’m seeing the butterflies now is at the pentas and Mexican bauhinia that are blooming profusely these days, so nectar plants are important too!

pipevine cats1
A Pipevine caterpillar

On a different note – but still keeping with the lepidopteran theme – there is a wonderful new Peterson Field Guide available on moths of northeastern North America. Unfortunately it is NORTHeastern – but many of the species portrayed in the excellent illustrations do occur in our region. I highly recommend adding this book to your library. Moths may have more subtle coloration than butterflies, but many are quite spectacular mimics of lichen, bird droppings, leaves, or other insects. And although a few are pests of forest trees or in the garden, most are harmless and are important sources of food for bats (as adults) and songbirds (as caterpillars).

I was interested to read in the moth book introduction that there is a citizen science program on moth-watching in Great Britain. So little is known about our moth fauna here in the USA; it would be great if something similar could be launched here. Did you know that there are about 15 to 20 times as many moths as butterflies? In North America, there are about 11,500 moth species to 725 butterfly species. Perhaps with the availability of books like this one, people will start to pay more attention to these poorly known and poorly understood creatures. All it takes is leaving your porchlight on and observing (and trying to identify) the nocturnal creatures that are attracted to it. But be aware that some of the most colorful moths fly during the day.

Another useful thing to do where moths are concerned is to rear the caterpillars you find. Just because they don’t turn into beautiful butterflies does not mean they are not interesting in their own right! Do keep a record of the host plant the caterpillars eat.

Long live the Lepidoptera!

On Happy Puppies, “Bugs” and Honorary Dinos: A statement by Dr. Robert T. Bakker

When I was a lowly freshman hanging around the Yale Peabody Museum, one mind-opening surprise was the unrestrained joy of paleontological language. I’d been a dino-geek since the fourth grade. I knew a dozen duck-billed dinosaurs by name — their technical names.  I’d met Corythosaurus casuararius and Saurolophus osborni face-to-face in the exhibit halls of the New York museum.

But real-life paleontologists in the Yale lab addressed their favorite fossils as if they were family pets. The great Tyrannosaurus rex had been known as “that big bug” since 1909. The Montana canyon where the finest rex had been dug was “Bug Creek.”  And the whole slice of geological time recorded by the rocks there had become the “Bug Creekian Age.”

buggy blogOur esteemed Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The term “bug” was a term of paleontological endearment. Tiny, microscopic fossils were “bugs.” The paleo folks squinting down their microscopes searching for single-celled fossils said they were searching for “my beloved Early Paleocene bugs.” Field expeditions looking for tiny Jurassic mammals spoke of “furry bug jaws,” a.k.a. the dentigerous rami from Paurodon, Docodon, and Ctenacodon.

Gigantic species, too, were encompassed by the affectionate buggy label.

Trilobite specialists — and I have met many — always smiled when they showed us students an especially ornate Devonian phacopidan: ”Check out this elegant bug,” they’d say. Trilobites with smooth, streamlined shells — adaptations for burrowing through the sediment — invariably were “mud-bugs.”

buggy blogA trilobite or “dino-bug,” as they are affectionately called in the paleontological community.

“Puppy” was popular for Mammalia of gargantuan sizes. The immense, multi-ton Eobasileus cornutus, an herbivore with six horns and giant saber-teeth, was “that bumpy-headed puppy.”  Even cold-blooded Amphibia could enter that category.  When we moved a cast replica of the Triassic Mastodonsaurus, with its yard-long skull, we were cautioned to be especially careful with that “monstrous puppy.”

The term “Dinosaur” was an honorific as well as a narrowly defined taxonomic category. Any fossil that evoked the mystery of the Deep Past could be an “honorary dinosaur.” Mastodons and mammoths, saber-toothed cats and fin-backed Dimetrodons were all included in the “dinosaur exhibit.” Trilobites, because they were so captivating, were honorary “dinosaur-bugs.”

The labels in our new HMNS fossil hall follow the paleontological tradition of using both technical and affectionate terms. The free app, which be available soon, will give even more scientific data, plus stories from the scientists. Our superb skeleton of an Early Permian lake amphibian is labeled as an Early Permian archegosaurid. But it also goes by the nickname bestowed by the collection-management crew when the crate was opened — “Happy Puppy.”

The breathtaking sea reptile with seven unborn embryos is described in the signage as “Stenopterygius from the Toarcian Age of the Early Jurassic.”  And also as “Jurassic Mom.”

Our HMNS trilobite display is among the very best in the world. All our many trilobites are identified by genus and species, family and geological age. There’s a compact but precise scientific family tree of all trilobites, showing their Darwinian booms and the puzzling busts of extinction. But, since we are very fond of every single trilobite specimen, we are are quite happy to call them “bugs,” too.

The only way to experience the joy of paleo-nomenclature in all its multi-levels is to visit our hall, stroll past the petrified bugs, puppies and mini-monsters, and thereby absorb the wonder of the Deep Past.