Red Dye, Yellow Journalism

The natives of North America cultivated plants and animals (including insects) that are unique to North America. An important insect is the cochineal scale insect which feeds on the prickly pear cactus. The cochineal scale can produce up to 24 percent of its body weight in carminic acid The scale insects can be ground and the carminic acid recovered. Carminic acid is the base for the brilliant red dye, carmine. The Spanish Explorers of the 1500s were impressed with the dye and traded with the Native Americans for the dye. No dye capable of producing the brilliant red color was then available in Europe. The carmine dye was highly prized and worth its weight in gold. The Spanish exported tons of carmine to Europe in the holds of their galleons.

Today, there are synthetic red dyes available, but carmine is preferred for some applications. Carmine has traditionally been used as a food coloring. Carmine is on the FDA GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list and has a long history of use in foods with no reported ill effects. Recently an article in CNN discusses the use of carmine dye by Starbucks Coffee to color their Strawberries and Creme Frappuccino drink. The article is filled with inaccuracies that have been picked up by multiple media sources and reprinted.

This article states that carmine is made from beetles. This is incorrect. Cochineal Scale insects belong to the Order Hemiptera and are relatives of aphids and true bugs. They are not closely related to Beetles; Beetles belong to the Order Coleoptera. A host of screaming headlinges inaccurately state that products colored with carmine dye have “bugs” in them. The carminic acid is produced by the cochineal insect, but the processing extracts only the carminic acid and leaves the parts and pieces of the scale insects behind.

Red Carmine Dye Causes Controversy

Most foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, contain some insects. It is nearly impossible for someone to completely avoid consuming some insects in food. However, food is intensely cultural. In this case, vegans who wish to avoid all animals and animal products (including insects) in their food object to the use of carmine dye. Maintaining a strict culture surrounding food is often incompatible with eating food prepared by vendors. Those with strong cultural food preferences must either avoid certain vendors or try to pressure vendors into selling products that meet their cultural standards. One way to exert pressure is to sensationalize the issue in a way that gains support of the non-vegan public. From the Point of View of an entomologist and scientist, there is no evidence of any harm from consuming carmine dye or from consuming small amounts of insects commonly found in human food.  From the scientific POV, the argument is about a cultural issue, not a health and safety issue.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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