Cochineal or Carmine: History, Uses and Health Concerns

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Cochineal is a natural red dye made from crushed cochineal scale insects, originally cultivated by Mexican cochineal farmers. Cochineal, or carmine, fell out of favor in the 19th century because of cheaper synthetic dyes, although in the last thirty years

Cochineal is a natural red dye made from crushed cochineal scale insects, originally cultivated by Mexican cochineal farmers. The bright carmine to scarlet red of cochineal, used to color textiles, caused a sensation in Renaissance Europe when it was first brought back from the new world by Spanish Conquistadors. Cochineal fell out of favor in the 19th century because of cheaper synthetic dyes, although in the last thirty years it has rebounded as a major food and cosmetics additive, and preferred healthy alternative to artificial colorings.

The History of Cochineal: On February 8, 1587 Mary Stuart ( Mary Queen of Scots) approached an execution block set upon a scaffold stage, in the Great Hall, at Fotheringhay Castle about to be put to death for her alleged role in an assassination attempt against Queen Elizabeth I of England. After her long black robe was removed Mary revealed to the crowd of onlookers a stunning red velvet petticoat over a crimson red satin blouse. Mary’s attention to her attire that day was not merely coincidence but highly intentional, for, in Tudor England and Renaissance Europe, red was the color of courage and sacrifice. Defiantly for the former Queen regnant of Scotland and her supporters, red also represented the blood of Christ and Catholicism.

Elements of Mary Stuart’s wardrobe and most other wealthy, distinguished Europeans of the day, would not have appeared so dazzling or indeed dignified if it were not for the discovery of a new source of red dye from the new world known as cochineal. It is said that when Hernán Cortez and his men first saw the marketplaces of Tenochtitlan, Mexico they were amazed by the multitude of colors and in particular the brilliant shades of red which colored everything from fabrics to pots, statues and houses.

Cochineal dye comes from a parasitic bug which is crushed to produce a dye powder known as carmine. The bug, no bigger than a third the size of a ladybird, feeds from the spiny branches of cacti in the Opuntia genus, commonly known as prickly pear. The female cochineal bug contains a chemical, in the class of anthraquinones, known as carminic acid. Carminc acid produces a bright red substance that is almost indelible when added to fabric and other absorbent materials.

Ancient Mexican cultures, most notably the Aztecs, had been successfully cultivating cochineal insects long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores, in fact, for thousands of years. They had managed to breed larger species and even cultivated new strains that produced brighter shades of red. They produced the dye powder by laying the bugs out in the sun to dry for at least five days which drastically reduced their yield. Cultivating and harvesting cochineal bugs was a huge task, as it took up to 70,000 bugs to create one pound of dye.

After initially becoming popular in Europe, not only as textile dye but also for medicine, paint and cosmetics, Spanish galleons carried cochineal west from Mexico to the Philippines, and beyond, where the red dye became desirable. From Spain the valuable commodity traveled east via Constantinople to the Middle East where it was used to color such items as sophisticated textiles and delicate Persian carpets.

In the 17th century cochineal replaced kermes as the dye of choice for the British Army Redcoats. Although cochineal dye was more expensive it was more durable and its scarlet color didn’t fade when faced with the elements like other natural dyes. The Redcoat's, woolen, red coats were considered important for moral and nationalism, and as such they endured for over 200 years until cost and practicality saw their demise.

Cochineal also found its place in British popular culture. A line in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children explains how to get the icing pink in Perks birthday cake. "You beat up whites of egg and mix powdered sugar with them, and put in a few drops of cochineal". The red coloring is also mentioned in Noel Coward's 1930 play, Private Lives when Elyot advises his wife Sibyl to ask the kitchen for cochineal, in lieu of her missing lipstick.

The first synthetic dyes were developed in the late 18th century and by 1900 were cheaper and easier to produce than most natural dyes including cochineal, the cultivation of which went into steep decline. Even the famous British Redcoats changed to synthetics.

However, in the 1970s new research emerged from Russia strongly suggesting a correlation between synthetic colorings, in particular Red No.2 and E123, and cancer. Indeed, synthetic dyes had been a health concern since the 1960s since workers in dye factories has developed the disease. This led to further research and the subsequent banning by governments across the globe of many synthetic colorings. Red artificial colorings were regarded as the most dangerous and linked to a range of ailments such ADD, asthma and hyperactivity.

By the 1990’s the search was on for safer natural dyes, especially for food colorings. Cochineal was considered a good alternative, non perishable, and at that time had no known health issues. It could also be mixed with other natural colorings to produce a wide range of colors from orange to purple and so on. Unfortunately the insects cultivation in Mexico had all but vanished along with the cochineal farmers and their knowledge. So for the most part the cochineal dye industry had to be started from scratch. Today cochineal is cultivated in Chile, Bolivia, South Africa and the Canary Islands. However Peru is the world's largest producer with a staggering 80% share of the cochineal market.

What products Contain Cochineal? Ironically cochineals popularity began in the renaissance and in in recent years the red dye has enjoyed a renaissance, but with one notable difference. Whereas in the past the dye was predominantly used for fabrics, today it is mostly used as a food, beverage and cosmetics coloring. It is added to many processed foods such as ice cream, yogurt, gelatins, puddings, cheese, cookies, fruit juice, maraschino cherries, candy, Campari and other liquors. Cosmetics that are colored pink red or brown, e.g. lipstick, eye shadow, blush, mascara, eye liner, nail polish: pharmaceutical products including prescription drugs, cough syrup and also baby products.

Is Cochineal Safe?  As cochineal found itself back in vogue so its demand and market price rose, although some people felt disgusted when they learned that the color of their lipstick or ice cream came from the resin of dead parasitic bugs. Then in 2006 reports emerged that some people had had allergic reactions from cochineal which caused swelling, rashes and even life threatening respiratory problems. There were protests from vegetarians and vegans who had unknowingly been utilizing animal products and also from the producers of Kosher products. Tropicana grapefruit juice, in particular, came under scrutiny.

Up until that point products that contained cochineal had been labeled with ambiguous phases like "color added" and "natural color". Acknowledging the possible dangers and public concerns the Food and Drug Administration now requires that products be labeled “cochineal extract” or “carmine”. Moreover, the FDA currently states that cochineal is not a “significant hazard” to public health.

Cochineal and Starbucks: the Seattle based coffee company has been adding cochineal dye to many of its goods for a number of years. The company uses the dye in red colored smoothies, strawberry and banana, and also raspberry swirl cake. However, following criticism by many Starbucks customers, who just couldn’t stand the idea of having crushed dead insects in their coffee, Starbucks has decided to replace cochineal with lycopene, the red phytochemical found in tomatoes. As of June, 2012 Starbucks will no longer use cochineal in their products.                 

Primary image, image credit.

Image credit: Smarties by Rowntrees were first introduced in 1937. Red and violet smarties were originally colored with cochineal. These days they are colored with red cabbage.

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