Cochineal Coloring: Is That a Bug in Your Food?

Feedloader (Clickability)

The Food and Drug Administration has decided that consumers have a right to know when there's a bug in their food (or lipstick). Well, sort of—under the new rule, ingredient labels on many food, beverage and cosmetic products will soon get more specific than simply "artificial color," or "color added," but most people probably still won't recognize the terms "cochineal extract" and "carmine" for what they are. (I know I didn't!)

Turns out that both of these forms of red dye are extracted from the dried bodies of Dactylopius coccus, a parasitic insect that lives on cacti. Obviously, vegans, vegetarians and those keeping kosher or halal tend to get a little upset when they learn the true nature of this ingredient, which is common in many brands of juice, yogurt, candy, ice cream and cosmetics.

Beyond the basic "ick" factor of eating bugs, these dyes can cause serious allergic reactions in some people, something that's been known for at least a decade. So of course it makes sense to list them on labels. But personally, I tend to think ignorance was bliss. After reading this disturbing morsel in the Food and Agriculture Organization's official description of cochineal extract, I'm finding it hard to swallow my "ruby red" grapefruit juice today: "Commercial products may also contain proteinaceous material derived from the source insect."

I'll try to soothe myself with the notion that eating bugs is good for the planet, and certainly more natural than ingesting petroleum-based concoctions like Red No. 40.

What's your take on this? Do you plan to avoid products that list cochineal extract or carmine on their labels, or is this no big deal?

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.