Flip over any red coloured beverage and read the label. Look for cochineal, cochineal extract, carmine, crimson lake, or even natural colourings. These words indicate that product contains carminic acid, a dye used in cosmetics, food, and almost all red, reddish, and pink beverages on the market. Though a potential allergen, it is considered safe for human consumption. While it is not considered dangerous by most, consumer groups are still demanding the product to be clearer of its origins. The public should know that they are consuming an insect-based additive.
The bright red colour is produced naturally by the beetle, cochineal. Adults feeding on prickly pear cacti are harvested and processed. The dead females are dried, and abdomens and eggs are separated to be ground into a powder. This is cooked at high temperature, then filtered to extract essentially pure carmine. Each body contains less than 20 per cent of the carminic acid, so 70,000 beetles are used to produce one pound of carmine.
When the first Spanish explorers arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, they reported sightings of natives wearing clothing in brilliant red colours. The Aztecs had discovered nocheztli, harvested from cochineal beetle. Spanish fleets brought the dye back to Europe, but guarded the secret to its origin. Other explorers ventured to the new world, but did not stumble onto the beetle for another 200 years. Modern beetles are now found round the globe, though the majority of dye is produced in Peru.
Cochineal dye has been used for hundreds of years without any known adverse effects, but only recently has it begun to be consumed. Advocates of its use state carmine is a safe alternative to chemically based or synthetic colours, many of which come from coal tar. Other animal derived pigments, such as astaxanthin, are used for their health benefits, but currently no benefits have been linked to the oral consumption of carmine.
The FDA currently requires products containing carmine and other carmine-derived products to be clearly labelled. The dye is known to cause an allergic reaction is a small number of individuals. Common side effects include, but are not limited to flushing, headaches, hives, sneezing, and in the most severe case, anaphylactic shock. Those concerned about potential reactions should avoid any pink or red food that may contain an added colouring.