These Gross Bugs Are Used To Dye Food Red

Cochineal insect pairs up closeReuters/Tomas BravoCochineal insects on a cactus leaf.

You’d never guess by their whitish-grey outsides, but the bodies of these little critters, called cochineal insects, are a deep purpley red, and once crushed up they are a main ingredient in a bright red natural colouring that is prized by food and drink makers as a cheap alternative to synthetic red dye.

To make it, workers grind up thousands of the tiny bugs. Then they mix the deep red powder with water. Nearly 70,000 bugs go into each pound of cochineal, or carmine, colouring .

The dye is used to brighten everything from strawberry Nerds candies to Ocean Spray’s Ruby Red grapefruit juice. The crushed bug dye is even in lipstick. Until recently, Starbucks relied on carmine to give its strawberry Frappuccino its distinctive pink hue (the company stopped using cochineal colouring in 2012 after facing public outcry from vegans and other grossed-out customers).

Today, Peru exports the most of the dye; the country produces close to 200 tons of it each year.

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