Is food coloring made of bugs? Chemists debunk a common fear
“... people thought that they were being deceived.”
But as you begin sipping on the frosty, pink delight, you catch a glimpse of a news story headline over another customers’ shoulder — “Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccinos dyed with crushed up cochineal bugs.”
These bugs have dyed our food red for centuries, but the discovery of Starbucks’ use of these bugs in their drinks (which many argued made the drinks not vegan) sparked an interest — and disgust — for these bugs in a new way.
It’s a reputation that Joseph Schwarcz, Director of McGill University’s “Office for Science and Society,” says is largely unwarranted. He walks Inverse through the good, the bad, and the delicious of these tiny, red-hued insects.
What insect produces red food dye?
Red, insect-based dyes that you find in food like Starbucks’ strawberry frappuccino (which has since discontinued use of the dye) are primarily the product of the cochineal bug, Dactylopius coccus, native to tropical and subtropical areas in the Americas, like Mexico.
“The male is sacrificed for the beauty of the female.”
These tiny insects are smaller than the width of a fingernail, resemble a mix between a mite and a tick, and can be found living on cacti — almost like a barnacle. From the outside, these grey-hued bugs aren’t much to look at, but if you crush them a bright crimson dye called carmine is released.
“The active ingredient in there is something called carminic acid,” explains Schwarcz. “Which in theory can be produced synthetically, but it's just not economically viable to do that.”
While they’ve come into public consciousness more recently with the help of grossed-out Starbucks regulars and a sharper focus on food additives in general, Aztecs were using these insects to dye their clothes for centuries before they ever made their way to North America. While the date of their first use is unknown, Schwarcz says that this dye was first introduced to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1518 (allegedly, by Montezuma himself.)
After this introduction, the carmine dye made its way to Europe and beyond as a popular dye for clothing and eventually cosmetics and food as well.
How is the dye extracted?
Extracting the dye is a simple process that hasn’t changed much since the 1500s, Schwarcz says. Essentially, the cochineal are collected, quickly killed with a dunk in hot water, and then dried and crushed to extract the red pigment. Or the “bug juice,” as Schwarcz calls it.
Notably, while it’s only the female cochineal that actually produces carmine, Schwarcz says there’s no processing step that separates the males from the females before they are dried and squashed.
“The male is sacrificed for the beauty of the female,” says Schwarcz.
With modern manufacturing, the extracted carmine is also passed through purification and a food-grade certification process, just like any other food additive might be.
What products use insect food dye?
As for where you can find carmine in food or other products today, Schwarcz says you need to look no further than ice creams (particularly strawberry or cherry), yogurts, lipstick, and eye shadow. In Europe, Schwarcz says you can even find carmine coloring the iconic red M&M.
“The most dangerous things in the world are natural.”
However, after the negative attention that Starbucks received for their carmine-colored drink, companies might not be ready to splash this news across their billboards just yet.
This could be a mistake, Schwarcz says — it is often dishonest or opaque marketing about these additives that drive the public’s distrust, not necessarily their content alone.
“There certainly was nothing wrong with that Starbucks product in terms of safety,” Schwarcz says. “I think it comes down more to the fact that people thought that they were being deceived.”
“That's an issue not only with this but with many other chemical controversies today,” Schwarcz continues. “People are okay when they are making a choice about risk... [but] they just don't want any risk imposed on them.”
Is insect food dye safe to eat?
Case and point, carmine-colored foods are 100 percent safe to consume, says Schwarz. Even shellfish allergies aren’t a real concern, as they often are with other insects like cicadas, because none of the cochineal body is making its way into the dye.
While any food can be an allergen, he says that the likelihood of being allergic to carmine-colored food is low. The only other potential concern to have when consuming carmine-colored food is that they’re not considered kosher or vegan.
For consumers who strictly follow one of these dietary guidelines — and who enjoy eating bright red food — it may be worth giving the label a close once over.
Schwarcz also points out that it may even be safer in some ways than synthetic dyes like Red 40 which have been linked in some studies to hyperactivity in children (although that research is far from settled.)
However, getting hung up on the idea of “natural” dyes like carmine being better than synthetic dyes like Red 40 is a slippery, and often inaccurate, slope, says Schwarcz.
“There’s this ‘natural is better’ thing that’s just sort of a myth,” he says.
“The most dangerous things in the world are natural. Botulinum toxin, ricin, poison ivy, [or] rattlesnake venom... Whether [a substance] is extracted from a plant or a synthetic version is made in the lab is irrelevant. What matters is what the molecular structure is.”
Is insect food dye the future of food?
With the rise in meat alternatives and even insect-eating, are carmine and other insect-derived colors the future of food dye? Maybe not, says Schwarcz.
Instead, he suggests that highly processed and artificially colored foods themselves might take a back burner in coming years as public interest turns toward less processed, whole foods.
But when that processed snack craving does inevitably strike, remember to thank your insect friends for the tasty bite.
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the acid found in carmine from carbonic acid to carminic acid. Inverse regrets the error.