Eating Bugs: The Secret Behind the Red Food Coloring Carmine

Do you secretly enjoy nibbling on red-colored candy? Licorice. Taffy. Suckers.

You may want to stop daydreaming about those indulgence to digest this bit of news: Some FDA approved red dyes originate from insects.
Photo Credit: Flickr

Yes. Bugs.

Now it's time to scour the pantry. Take a peek at that box of red candy, strawberry cake mix or bottle of red wine vinegar. If you notice the ingredients cochineal extract, carminic acid or carmine -- all common red dyes -- on the label, the foods contain dried bugs.

Red Bugs in My Food
Red dye made from carminic acid is derived from the female Dactylopius coccus costa, or cochineal insect. Although the Food and Drug Administration requires the bug-derivative to be pasteurized or treated with a similar process to eliminate Salmonella microorganisms, the thought of eating foods tinted red with insect innards may make your stomach turn -- or worse, cause an allergic reaction.

Red Dye Can be Dangerous
After accepting the bug-component of cochineal extract, carminic acid or carmine, take heed if you experience allergic reactions to food additives. In a 1997 study by the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Allergy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor researchers confirmed an allergic reaction to a carmine-dyed frozen treat. Within three hours of eating a frozen treat dyed with carmine, a 27-year-old subject reported anaphylaxis, nausea and hypotension with tachycardia.

Not a New Concept
Native Americans and Mexicans have been using the natural red bug dye for centuries. When carminic acid is mixed with natural dyes from other sources, fade resistant red, purple and blue dyes are created and used to color fibers for cloth making, according to the University of California at Los Angeles' The Midred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. Today, Peru and the Canary Islands are top producers of carminic acid.

Cochineal extract, carminic acid or carmine also add color to non-food items. Before picking up a tube of lipstick, compact of eyeshadow or bottle of shampoo peek at the ingredient list. You might be surprised to find bugs in your favorite products.

Sources and Suggested Further Reading:

Until Next Time,
Choose Healthy!

Angela Tague
Whole Foods Living

Note: This article was originally published on Yahoo! Voices on February 4, 2011.  

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