Many cringe at the thought of eating bugs but the truth is most people have consumed them both knowingly and unknowingly. How is this? This is because one of the most popular red food colourings – carmine – is manufactured from squashed bugs called cochineal. They are native to Latin America where they consume cacti.
They are now farmed mainly in Peru with millions of the tiny insects getting harvested annually to make the coloring which is used in making many foods including yogurts, ice creams, fruit pies, soft drinks, cupcakes and donuts.
Carmine is a popular coloring choice because it is stable, lasts long, and safe. It is not affected by light or temperature either.
Those who support the use of it claim it is more healthy than most alternatives, however everyone agrees that the labeling needs to stand out more. There are also better alternatives out there now.
Amy Butler Greenfield, author of « A Perfect Red, » a book on Carmine, said: « Carmine is an incredibly stable and reliable natural food dye that can be used to create a wide range of colors – pinks, oranges, purples, as well as reds. »
She also said: A few people have serious allergic reactions to it, but overall it has a great, long-term safety record. »
The red color from the bugs is derived from carminic acid, which helps the bugs ward off predators. Speaking about the preparations, Ms Butler Greenfield said: « Generally the bugs are dried first… nowadays food-grade cochineal dye is put through many filters to remove insect parts. »
Some companies in the UK still use carmine to produce things however they have also been considering alternative means that will be just as natural and suitable for vegetarians.
If it was up to Animal rights group PETA, the use of carmine would be prohibited everywhere in the world. They say it takes about 70,000 individual insects to produce just 500g of dye, which makes it a product the more merciful consumers don’t want to use.
Carmine is now primarily produced in Peru and the country owns 95% share of the international market. In 2017, Peru exported up to 647 tonnes of carmine for a total value of $46.4m (£33m).
The making of the product creates at least 33,000 jobs for the citizens and puts income in the hands of many. So regardless of what the more compassionate buyers think, carmine may be here to stay. At least as far as Peru is concerned.