The cochineal beetle is a small insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus plants in Central and South America. The female beetles feed off the red cactus berries and store the red color in their bodies. This dye is called carmine and it can be removed to color various products.
The Aztecs successfully cultivated cochineal insects for thousands of years. They managed to create larger species that produced brighter shades of red. It was initially used for medicine, pain, and cosmetics. The red dye became very desirable in the Middle East where it was used for textiles and carpets. Today, Peru is the world’s largest producer of cochineal but it can also be found in South Africa, Chile, Bolivia, and the Canary Islands.
In the 1970s, after research found that synthetic red dyes-especially red dye #2 and E123-were connected to cancer, ADD, asthma and hyperactivity, natural red dyes such as carmine gained popularity.
It has been added to many processed foods such as candy, ice cream, yogurt, puddings, cookies, cherries, fruit juice, and liquor due to its bright coloring.
Cosmetics that are colored primarily pink, red, or brown may contain traces of cochineal. Cochineal can be mixed with other natural colorings to produce a wide range of colors.
Beetle Juice is considered non-toxic and a safe alternative to synthetic dyes. The US Food and Drug Administration requires products using carmine to label appropriately, as some people are allergic to it.
Since it’s derived from a living being, products using cochineal or carmine are NOT vegan, vegetarian or Kosher. An friendly alternative is lycopene, the red pigment extracted from tomatoes.
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