Although using bug-based dyes in food production may turn some people off, they are not dangerous for humans to consume and they will likely continue to be used for some time to come.
The reddish-pink cochineal and carmine dyes that are frequently used in products like lipstick, yogurt and shampoo are organic in nature, as they come from tiny cochineal beetles. However, organic does not exactly mean it is vegetarian, and that was the issue that recently caused Starbucks Coffee shops to stop using the bug-based dyes in its strawberry-flavored mixed drinks, raspberry cakes and red velvet pies. In a modern demonstration of the power of social networking on the Internet, a South Carolina woman launched an online petition asking the coffee chain to stop using the bug-based dyes that quickly gathered thousands of signatures. Starbucks noticed the online flap and quickly announced it would switch to a tomato-based dye for it pink drinks and desserts by the end of this June.
Although Starbucks will now switch to vegetable-based coloring, the firm has not been the only company to use the bugs in its products and cochineal and carmine are still found in a wide range of products in the U.S. today. According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), both ingredients may be safely used as colorants, but agency guidelines mandate that cochineal extract or carmine must be declared on the label of all food products intended for human use, including butter, cheese, and ice cream. This means anyone interested in avoiding bug-based food ingredients need only learn to read the labels carefully in the future.
The cochineal bug infests prickly pear cactus plants nearly exclusively, and when the Spanish conquistadors came to the Americas they first noticed the brilliant, colorfast red colors of cochineal used to color fabrics by the natives in Mexico. Because the European nations had no dyes that were as vibrant or lasting, Spain quickly moved to set up exclusive trade in the unique dyes to bolster that nation’s textile competition with England at the time. Although steps were taken to prevent the prickly pear cactus and its pink bugs from being taken off the continent, it was eventually smuggled out.
The cactus was soon found growing in the favorable climates of Spain and Italy, and it even found its way to the Middle East where it is known as the Sabra plant in Israel today. In time, was used to dye the royal purple robes of Europe and was also used to color the British army's famous red coats. Although cochineal extract and carmine are still used in food preparation today, improved aniline dyes made from coal tar eventually replaced cochineal as a dye for clothing in the late 1800’s. Although using insects in food production may turn some people off, the little beetles and their colorfast pink dyes are not dangerous for humans to consume and they will likely continue to be utilized in food outside the United States for some time to come.