A 2000 story for Stuff. a British men’s magazine.
CARMINE: BUG JUICE!
A BUG BY ANY OTHER NAME
Carmine, a sweet girly name for ruby red, is also the name of a coloring used in foods, cosmetics, and textiles. A slightly less pretty name: bug juice.
A LIGHTER SHADE OF SCALE
Carmine shows up in fruit juices, canned fruit, pie fillings, icings, ice cream, yogurt, jellies, puddings, candies, liqueurs, cough syrups, and even lipstick. It’s also called cochineal or cochineal extract, the cochineal being a aphid-like scale insect, which lives by slurping sap from the prickly pear and other cacti. Colonies of these disgusting little creatures hide themselves under an equally disgusting layer of waxy secretions until spring when the females are bloated with eggs and colorful bug squeezin’s. That’s cochineal pickin’ time, when Peruvian farmers brush the bugs from the plants, dry ’em out, and boil ’em down.
THE BAD “SEED”
Peru leads the world in harvesting yummy-colored bugs, exporting roughly 325 tons annually. Peruvian insects were transplanted there from Mexico where Cortez found Aztecs using them as we do today. His sacks of New World bug dust started a ruby-red frenzy throughout Europe. Spanish importers, however, remained tight-lipped about the source. When Antoni van Leeuwenhoek turned his microscope on these alleged “seeds” in 1704 and discovered nasty segmented bodies and spindly legs, he was politely ignored. Cheaper synthetic dyes eventually pushed carmine off the market until the 1970s when the red dye #2 panic recast carmine as a back-to-nature godsend.
WHAT COLOR IS YOUR PARASITE?
Today, decent bug-abstaining folk will be lucky to find “cochineal extract,” “carmine” or “carmic acid” honestly identified on labels. As an animal product, carmine evades the FDA’s strict labeling policies for synthetics and can legally enter your fruit pie only sketchily identified as “artificial color.” And it’s not just red to stay away from; minor variations in carmine’s pH make possible an insectoid rainbow of purple, pink, orange, and yellow additives. Getting hungry for gray?