Cochineal - Bug Juice

What do the following have in common:

  • Good & Plenty candy
  • Dannon Fruit on the Bottom Boysenberry Yogurt
  • Yoplait Thicke & Creamy Low Fat Strawberry Yogurt
  • Tropicana Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice
  • SoBe Courage Cherry Citrus Drinks
  • And, last, but not least by a long shot, naturally dyed red, magenta, brown, purple, scarlet, blue, and orange yarns.

They owe their beautiful colors to a white fuzzy scale insect, Dactylopius coccus, which thrives on some varieties of prickly pear (Opuntia). The Dactylopius coccus, is better known as cochineal. Still don’t recognize the name? Some product ingredient labels, especially on foods that are red, orange, brown, blue and purple, might list carminic acid or carmine dye, a purified form of carminic acid which is reacted with alumina.

In January, 2006, The Wall Street Journal
reported that “Under current FDA regulations, food labels must identify certain man-made colorings by name, such as FD&C Red No. 40. But for carmine, cochineal and other naturally occurring ingredients, companies can use terms such as ‘color added’ or, oddly, ‘artificial color’.”

Our FDA is broken. Cochineal is yet just another example of the inefficiency and LACK of moral responsibility, clearly not a goal of the FDA. Back in 2000, CODEX (not on my list of favorites, either) met to discuss cochineal extracts, putting together a number of allergen case studies in which they concluded:

“Adverse reactions to cochineal colours after occupational exposure, dermal contact, or consumption of coloured food and drinks have been the subject of case reports.

The reported effects were the consequence of allergic reactions, and the involvement of an immunologically mediated mechanism has been demonstrated.

The nature of the adverse reactions, e.g. urticaria, rhinitis, diarrhea, and anaphylaxis, provides clear evidence that systemic reactions can follow exposure of a sensitized individual to cochineal colours.

Some of the adverse reactions were severe and required emergency treatment. The weight of evidence suggests that proteins in the food colours are the allergenic species; however, the structures of the proteins and the role of protein-bound carminic acid in the allergic reaction are unknown.”

The Committee considered that the first two criteria for the addition of a foodstuff to the Codex list of allergenic foods were satisfied.”

Cochineal History

By whatever name one chooses to refer to cochineal, it is touted as being a “natural” ingredient with a long history of use in New World, Inca and Aztec, artwork and textiles.

The “Red Coats” of the Revolutionary War owed their color to the cochineal. The first true scarlet dye resulted from treating cochineal with an acidic tin solution.

In studying the cochineal’s history, I learned it was as valued and controlled by the Spanish as was gold.

I love history, and can appreciate the fact that cochineal played a tremendous role in commerce, art, and textiles. What I can’t appreciate is its transition for use in the food processing AND cosmetics industries, even given the fact it was meant to replace synthetic, carcinogenic Red Dye #1, and since then, Red Dye #2 and #40.

I also find the pigment and food industry’s label of “natural”, in regards to cochineal, as being misleading. When the pigment must be chemically extracted and modified, what may have begun as “natural” clearly becomes processed.

“Natural” is how people ate prior to the advent of the canning and food processing industry – owned a cow, fed a few chickens, planted a garden, ate the old cow, killed a few chickens…

“Natural” or not, my real issue is Truth In Labeling:

Food Standards Agency, London – The Committee concluded that cochineal extract, carmines, and, possibly, carminic acid in foods and beverages may initiate or provoke allergic reactions in some individuals. Because some of the adverse reactions are severe, it considered that appropriate information, for example noting the presence of the colour in foods and beverages, should be provided to alert individuals who are allergic to these compounds. BBC Source

As in all things, we are all free (although that’s becoming more questionable in America) to make our own food choices. I’d prefer to make educated choices utilizing honest Truth in Labeling in which 100% of the ingredients are disclosed in any processed “food”, although I say that with great trepidation. How does one define “processed”? I wouldn’t expect labeling for whole foods I purchase from local farms, but that’s another “blog” and probably 40-years of haggling between American committees.

The cochineal industry is huge, internationally reaping billions of dollars a year. I give credit to the Mexican and South American governments who hve created an industry within their own countries, providing jobs to their people in a legal and legitimate way. But at what expense.

Noteworthy – if any vegetarians are eating foods with cochineal, you’re no longer a vegetarian. Oh, and then there’s vegans and cochineal-additive cosmetics….

Cochineal Allergies Easily Overlooked

Not meaning to beat a dead cochineal, but another key issue is how many physicians are savvy to cochineal allergies? Only Dr. House would think to consider something as seemingly exotic, diligently researching until he found the answer. I think the majority of us can look at our doctors and say, “Yeah, as if…..”.

As reported in the European Journal of Allerlgy & Clinical Immunology
as cochineal relates to industry-related illnesses:

“Carmine proteins can induce IgE-mediated food allergy and occupational asthma in workers using products where its presence could be easily overlooked, as well as in dye manufacture workers.”

Regarding allergies and who to call for more information from the article Sensitivity to Additives

“The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), petitioned the FDA to either revoke approval of carmine colorings or require that they be clearly labeled by name.

A University of Michigan allergist, James Baldwin, M.D, has confirmed that Cochineal extract is a known cause of life-threatening anaphylactic shock. It can also be the cause of unexplained allergic reactions ranging from mild hives and itchy skin to dangerous anaphylaxis.

CSPI urges allergists who have or have had patients allergic to carmine or cochineal extract to call its Carmine Allergy Clearinghouse at 1-888-653-7872.”

For those who like to dig into the actual research, which gives far more information than I can squeeze into this page, see: Kägi et al., 1994; Kägi & Wüthrich, 1996; Baldwin et al., 1997; DiCello et al., 1999.

Of particular interest in the section labeled Cross-Reactivity there’s valuable information for possible reactions when consuming more than one food at a time (such as meals), as well as information as to how sensitivity to cochineal may develop: “In many of the reports of adverse reactions to Cochineal, the cause of sensitisation was topical exposure from the use of Carmine-containing cosmetics or occupational exposure to Carmine, and not ingestion of Carmine-containing foods and beverages. Following sensitisation, affected individuals would be sensitive to Carmine, and the amounts present in foods and beverages could elicit allergic reactions.”

While this report may find the incidence of cochineal colorants to be lower than what is “allowable”, I don’t believe they’re taking into account the wide range of products that contain cochineal colorants which would increase exposure and levels consumed.

Also of interest in the same article, located at: – A batch of contaminated Cochineal colourant used in food was involved in an outbreak of salmonellosis, which killed one infant and rendered 22 patients seriously ill.


The easiest solution – give up processed foods and cosmetics. The first one is easy to do, and the second a little more difficult for some.

Try a real grapefruit, make your own yogurt (easy to do!), freeze your own popsicles using fresh-squeezed juices, and leave the cochineal for fabric and yarn dying, but do wear a mask and gloves, working outside.

-Sharon Ericson

Additional reading if cochineals “bug” you…..

The Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2006 – Is There A Bug in Your Juice? New Food Labels Might Say

FDA Could Require Labeling of Insect-Derived Red Food Dye

Cochineal Photos

Allergies – Cochineal Extract

The Bug That Changed History

A Perfect Red – The History of Cochineal

Van Young, Eric Indians, Merchants, and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821 Journal of Social History – Volume 36, Number 2, Winter 2002, pp. 489-491, George Mason University Press

Popsicle-induced anaphylaxis due to carmine dye allergy

Occupational asthma and food allergy due to carmine

You may be eating more insects than you think

BBC article – grocery store bans MSG and artificial colours in its foods

  Textile help