Sixty Shades of Red

Next time you're browsing the supermarket in search of the ingredients for dinner, pause a moment to read the labels of your favourite red-coloured foods and cosmetics. Chances are, you'll discover a notation for cochineal, carmine, or carminic acid, pigments whose origins might surprise and possibly disgust you Cochineal and its close cousin carmine (also known as carminic acid) are derived from the crushed carcasses of a beetle.

Cochineal is a scale insect that feeds on the nopal cactus in arid areas of Mexico, Peru, Chile and the Canary Islands. These popular colorants, which today are used to impart a deep red shade to fruit juices, campari, jellies, sweets, shampoos, lipstick and more, come from the female Dactylopius Coccus, a beetle that inhabits a type of cactus known as nopal, “tunera” or prickly pear that can be seen growing in abundance on the island (Cochineal was once a very important crop here.)

Raw cochineal comes in the form of silvery-purple dried insects about the size of a large grain of rice. They look like tiny little scarabs. The best cochineal is dark and full of carminic acid (a slight squash with the fingers will reveal it.) When ground and boiled to extract the dyestuff, they yield a beautiful rose violet to scarlet colour, quite distinctive from cochineal extract.

Dactylopius Coccus or cochineal was the source of a red dye used by Aztecs and Mexican Indians for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. Those indigenous peoples would collect cochineal insects, briefly immerse them in hot water to kill them and dissolve the females' waxy coating and dry them in the sun. The desiccated insects would then be ground to a fine powder. The Spaniards immediately grasped the potential of the pigment and within a few years the armed invaders had taken over control of the cochineal industry from the locals. The dried insects became one of the first products to be exported from the New World to the Old and soon one of the biggest colour exports that the world has ever seen started up.

Europeans took to the beautiful, bright scarlet colour immediately, both for its vibrant hue and for its extraordinary colourfast properties, ensuring that boatloads of cochineal insects would make the trans-Atlantic trek. In 1575 alone, about 80 metric tonnes of red arrived in Spain in the form of brown pellets, on what became known as the cochineal fleet; several trillion insect bodies arrived every year over the next quarter of a century. The dyes true nature - crushed beetle- was however one of the worlds best kept secrets, the widely accepted and encouraged belief being that the dye came from a berry.

It was a Frenchman in his mid twenties, Nicholas Joseph Thierry de Menonville who made the most daring raid of the 18th century on the cochineal fields of Central America and broke the true story of Cochineal to the world. (And that in itself is a fascinating adventure story.)

It takes about 70,000 insects to make one pound of cochineal, it has been used on the robes of kings and cardinals, on the lips of screen goddesses and on the canvases of great artists, cochineal is one of the reddest dyes that the natural world has produced.

Today it has been surpassed as a dye for cloth by a number of synthetic pigments, but is still widely used as a colouring agent for a number of foodstuffs, beverages, and cosmetics (because many of those synthetic dyes proved dangerous to humans when taken internally or allowed to leach into the body through the skin).

 Harvesting the Cochineal

Our distaste at the thought of ingesting bugs is based on cultural factors rather than the properties or flavours of the insects themselves; cochineal is a safe food colorant aside from a few rare cases of allergic reaction, cherry coke is full of it, it is colour additive E120. In the 21st century we apparently dab our cheeks with it and it is one of the few approved red constituents of eyeshadow.  While cochineal is used in a wide variety of foods, it is not found in kosher products because Jewish dietary laws prohibit the inclusion of insects or their parts in food, neither will you find it being used to dye Buddhists robes as there is too much death in it.

No longer an important crop in the Canaries, 85% of the harvest today is cultivated by Andean villagers, this precious cash crop employing an estimated 400,000 families.