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BUGS! Is It True that Some Food Colorants Are Actually Made of Crushed Bugs?

Updated on May 31, 2012
Are there bugs in my Frappuchino?
Are there bugs in my Frappuchino?

You may have recently seen warning that many of today’s red food dyes are actually made from the crushed carcasses of beetles. Obviously this is simply another of those urban myths that pop up from time to time just to freak us out; Right? In this case, you may be very surprised to learn that this is not an urban myth, and that those stories are absolutely true. The ingredients in questions are called Cochineal and Carminic Acid. They are both red dyes that are used in food products to provide a lovely red hue to our food and drink. You can expect to find the coloring in fruit juices, gelatins, candies, shampoos, and other products.

Harvesting the dactylopius coccus beetle.
Harvesting the dactylopius coccus beetle.

The History of Beetle Colorant

They dye itself is made from the carcasses of the Dactylopius coccus, a South and Central American Beetle that inhabits a cactus varietal called Opuntia. This dye is certainly not new as it was extracted long ago by the Aztecs. The fiery red pigment was ultimately discovered by the Spaniards when they reached the Americas, and quickly became a product of export to the Old World.

Today's Uses

Of course today, chemical dyes and colorants make up the bulk of our food supply, but the return to natural solutions means that more and more food products are turning to this natural alternative. Often, Red Dye #40, is thought to be synonymous with Cochineal, but that is not the case. In fact, Red #40 is a coal product. Beyond Red #40, other red colorants, have actually proven to have some harmful effects on humans, thus driving more producers toward Red #40 or Cochineal.

The dactylopius coccus beetle.
The dactylopius coccus beetle.

Not in My Frappuchino...

Indeed, Starbucks began using cochineal in their Strawberries and Crème Frappuchino in March of 2012 in an effort to migrate their offerings to more natural sources. The thinking was sound as their customers were squarely in the natural and organic demographic, but once those customers learned what natural really meant, the outrage was so great that within a month, the company was forced to end its experiment with cochineal in favor of a tomato based dye.

The Natural Conclusion

So the next time you are enjoying that tasty Strawberry Milkshake, just remember that while it may taste great, it might actually include a bit of unexpected protein. Sometimes our desire for “natural” food ingredients, can lead to some surprising results.

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    • T. R. Brown profile image
      Author

      T. R. Brown 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

      Jen,

      I am pretty skeptical of many natural food clams, but I would certainly rather eat a natural solution (particularly when there is no taste implication) than an industrial solution. If there is a need for coloring (questionable) in a particular food, I, like you, would much rather it be beetles than Red #40.

      Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

    • profile image

      Jen 5 years ago

      There are worse colors than those coming from bugs. I would rather eat red foods with them than those made from petroleum (Red 40 for example).

    • T. R. Brown profile image
      Author

      T. R. Brown 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

      Thanks for reading Angelllite. At least it is natural...

    • Angelllite profile image

      Angelllite 5 years ago from United States

      Yeah some reds are beetle's shells!

    • T. R. Brown profile image
      Author

      T. R. Brown 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

      Jeff,

      Thanks for reading! You taught me something too. I haven't seen the pigment in the raw, but it must be pretty stout.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Interesting stuff! I had no idea that cochineal was used as a dye for foodstuffs--I thought it was only used in textiles. The bright scarlet color of British Army officers' coats comes from the cochineal bug--or at least, that's what they used in the 18th century. (Private soldiers' coats were dyed with madder root, a much cheaper and duller dye.)

      Thanks for teaching me something new! Voted Interesting.