Color me Carmine: Cochineal bugs in our food and drink

November 8, 2012

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!

HMNS at Home is presented by Mitsubishi Corporation


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Authored By Nancy Greig

Dr. Nancy Greig is the founding director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which she oversaw from 1994 to 2016. As emeritus director she continues to work with the museum doing outreach and education. Her academic training is in botany and entomology, with a specialty in the interaction between insects, especially butterflies, and plants. In addition to cultivating backyard butterflies, she grows vegetables and bees

15 responses to “Color me Carmine: Cochineal bugs in our food and drink”

  1. Debi Linton says:

    Well, this would have been a fascinating article if my hackles hadn’t been raised by the barely disguised contempt for my dietary choices. Cheers for that.

  2. Poop says:


  3. Candace says:

    I found this article through a google search because I’m seriously, deathly allergic to carmine. I ended up in the ER on a business trip because I accidentally ate some yogurt that contained it. I agree that artificial colors also suck, but those aren’t the only options. Trader Joe’s uses a lot of natural colors from things like beet juice.

  4. girmay says:

    cochineal- the enemy of resource poor farmers in Ethiopia who are dependent on cacti for fruit production and animal feed!!!

  5. Anastasia says:

    Candace, sorry you’re allergic to carmine, but it is an all natural extract from an insect. People can be allergic to artificial AND natural golors, so Trader Joe products are not safe because the are all natural. Remember, bee venom, tobacco, and botulism are all natural.

  6. Hennie says:

    I live in Bloemfontein,South Africa.Many years ago we could buy Cochineal (extract) almost anywhere.I would like to know if this is still available and wherefrom.?

  7. Youssef Fouad says:

    Is there any substances used in food like this that I should be concerned about?

  8. Cristina says:

    I got a very bad allergic reaction that lasted for months with several visits to ER which started right after eating raspberries from a farm. We never found out what it was, but it took months to clear it up. Now I wonder if that was related to this? Do raspberries have Cochineal?

  9. John says:

    @Cristina, Raspberries do not contain cochineal. Raspberries are raspberries-a fruit that grows on bushes. It’s raspberry flavoured things that contain cochineal, such as yogurts. You probably are allergic to raspberries or an insecticide used on the raspberries.

  10. Javier Munoz says:

    I get all these insects on my bodyhday make my nose run and get these bad headache.I’m not sure if it’s what you are talking about. There like little black dots. When I smash them they turned blue. My veins in my arms are dark green and real thick. Can you help me please. Also I work with all kinds of seafood.fresh.

  11. Maggymoo says:

    Thank you for sharing, this was very informative. Although the thought of eating bugs is weird I am happy for natural options. My reason in searching about carmine is the allergy. I have been having severe allergic reactions over the years and finally took in an ingredient list of a bite size cupcake (ironically red velvet, a cheesecake factory product) to an allergist. He immediately pointed out carmine in the ingredients and we chuckled about it being bugs. After the scratch test of over 80 things and some bloodwork carmine is the only thing I am allergic to (other than some environmental things like cats and pollens). My reactions were so random and severe I thought for sure I was going to be allergic to 100 things. Carmine can surely connect the dots for my experiences however the bloodwork showed only a low-ish level reaction to it. I’m wondering if you know if the concentration level of carmine consumed could effect the intensity of a reaction? You also mentioned nail polish and makeup, can topically cause anaphylactic shock of the eyes?

  12. Nancy Greig says:

    Hi MaggyMoo. Thanks so much for your question. I am so sorry to hear that you are allergic to cochineal. As I said in the article, it is indeed a known (but fortunately rare) allergy. I would think that if you are allergic to something, you would have a bigger (more intense) reaction the more of it you consumed (certainly that is the case for me and certain pollens, or poison ivy!). I am sorry but I do not know the answer to your question about whether topically applied products containing cochineal would cause anaphylactic shock of the eyes. This is a question for your doctor.

  13. Clarabele custard says:

    Makes you want to stop eating anything. Or drinking it seems are world is full of things we can never see understand or want . But it’s been going on for years in are lifetime and it will continue to do so…just be careful read before u buy and do your research.

  14. Nancy says:

    WoW!! Now I want to become vegan, animal rights activist or insect rights activist. Your article really hit home, being so sensitive to everything and three of my children too. Now I am looking at more labels and taking my phone with me when I shop to define the ingredients of products. I always knew about the worm in the bottom of the tequila bottle but never knew about other insects in products. I won’t become vegan, I still love a good steak! Thanks for enlightening me and my family.

  15. Susan Nicholls says:

    I recently learned that places are not required to list the different names of the red dyes or even to list whether red dye is used in processing. I thought I was doing well to avoid carmine after a systemic anaphylactic shock reaction that nearly killed me. I ate a hamburger in a restaurant that used a beef supplier who sold meat that had been dyed. The supermarkets and restaurants don’t tell you this on their labels or menus. Later, I ate sundried tomatoes that listed “no preservatives” on the jar but no mention of food dyes and had a severe reaction. I called the company and they said they DID use the dye as a colorant. Same with an ice cream shop’s homemade strawberry ice cream. Oy Vey! Now my allergist tells me to avoid eating anything red. Even fresh red fruits and vegetables can be sprayed with dye to enhance color.

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