That natural red colouring in your food and makeup might come from a place that may make you cringe: The ground-up bodies of thousands of tiny insects.
Hundreds of thousands of miles from your local grocery store, farmers in south and central America make a living harvesting — and smashing — the bugs that go into the dye. They’re called cochineal insects, and their crushed bodies produce a deep red ink that is used as a natural food colouring .
The squeamish customers out there (and those that are vegan) weren’t too happy when they found out that the dye was used in the Starbucks’ Strawberry Frappuccino. The outcry ended in Starbucks halting its use of the product. But the dye is still used in thousands of other food products — from Nerds candies to grapefruit juice. Including that lovely red lipstick.
You’ll never see the word “insects” listed on a product label, though. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration introduced a new law that simply required food producers to list the ingredient as “carmine,” a catch-all term for an especially deep-red colour of the same name.
Cochineal insects, native to Central and South America, thrive on one particular species of cactus -- the prickly pear.
Rather than going into the field each day to harvest cochineal insects, workers simply collect the cactus leaves they live on.
The tiny bugs get their colour by thriving on the plant's bright red cactus berries, which are scattered across the leaves.
Once they've found a place to settle on the cactus, the little critters don't budge -- they burrow into the plant and feed for life.
Since the bugs don't budge, workers have to use tough brushes to scrape them off of the cacti leaves. Just a few bugs won't do it: Nearly 70,000 insects are just enough to make one pound of dye.
The insects might appear whitish-grey on the outside, but inside their bodies are a deep purpley-red. Cochineal bugs sheath themselves in white, waxy coating to protect themselves from intense heat and water loss.
Cochineal bugs have been harvested for their intense, easy-to-spot colour for hundreds of years. As early as the 15th century, indigenous peoples living in North, Central and South America were using the crushed bugs to colour fabrics.
By the colonial period, cochineal dye had become one of Mexico's most prized exports, second only to silver. Here, a worker selects the best insects from the harvest, which, once dried, he will crush into a grainy, red substance.
That substance is then processed into a powder or mixed with water and made into a liquid. The pigment can take on several different shades, making it widely appealing for a variety of uses. The ancient industry has seen a recent economic revival in South and Central America. Today, Peru exports the most of the dye; the country produces close to 200 tons of it each year.
Researchers study cochineal insects and their eggs -- shown here -- in a lab in Puebla, Mexico as part of a program aimed at finding more uses for the native bug.
Because they're so small -- just 1/5th of an inch -- cochineal bugs can only be seen in detail under a microscope. Their bodies are soft, flat, and oval-shaped.
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