Starbucks is coming under fire from vegans for using ground-up bugs to colour its Frappuccinos, but the use of cochineal insects is actually quite common in the food industry.In fact, cochineal dye has been around for centuries, although that probably doesn’t decrease the gross-out factor a whole lot.
So, how do they turn these insects into the food colouring you see every day? It’s quite a process.
The cochineal insect is native to Mexico and South America, and contrary to the popular nomenclature, they're not technically beetles. They're tiny and live on cactus plants — usually the prickly pear cactus
Female insects eat the red cactus berries, which concentrates the colour in their bodies. See all the red residue left by this squished bug?
So how do you harvest them? There are two methods — traditional and controlled. In both, the insects must be protected from predators and the elements. Each cycle lasts about three months
The controlled way uses these little baskets, called Zapotec nests, which contain female insects. They leave the nest, do their work on the cactus and breed before the cycle is over
For five to six minutes, the farmer will shake the beetles in a process that eventually kills the insects while retaining their dark colours. There are other ways to kill the bugs, like using a vat of hot water or an oven
Once they're dead, they're left outside in the sun for two to three days to dry. It's not recommended to leave them out overnight as the humidity will delay the drying process. Then, they shake them in a strainer to remove excess residue
Whichever process you use, it takes a whopping 70,000 cochineal bugs to make just one pound of cochineal dye. Peru alone produces 200 tons of the dye each year
Here, museum educator Bob Alderlink shows how easily the dried bugs can be turned into red dye. First, he crushes them
Voila. Cochineal dye comes in two basic forms — cochineal extract (the bodies of the pulverized bugs) and carmine, which is further processed to create a more purified colouring
According to a distributor cited by Angel Flinn at Gentle World:
- Frozen meat and fish
- Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, powdered drinks and alcoholic beverages
- Yogurts, ice cream and dairy-based drinks
- Candy, syrups, fillings and chewing gum
- Canned fruits like cherries and jams
- Dehydrated soups and canned soups
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