Image of Dactylopius coccus – Cochineal bugs
Color Me Carmine: Cochineal bugs in our food and drinks
Red E-120 to Eat
Editorial Cultura Vegana
Last edition: June 26, 2020 | Publication: October 29, 2018
(Translated by R. De Pasquale)
Carminic acid, E-120, C.I. 75470, or Natural Red 004, is a complex chemical used as a red dye extracted from cochineal bugs, Dactylopius coccus, or other insects. It is used as a colorant in cosmetics such as lipstick, makeup, nail polish, etc. and as E-120 in the food industry to give a red color to food or beverages, chorizo, strawberry juice, ketchup, etc.
In many cases, the vegan community is not aware that they are ingesting insects in their food and cosmetic products. It is considered to be the best natural colorant on the market, and it comes from the cochineal bug.
Industry and marketing hide their presence by modifying the name as carmine, carminic acid, or simply under the cryptic E-120. It is not surprising that in any forum, Facebook group, or vegan gathering it is a recurring theme because detecting foods that cover up the happy E-120 becomes one of its priority objectives.
The cochineal is a small insect that lives as a host for the prickly pear, feeding on the sap of the stalk; that parasitizes on the cladodes or stalks of the nopal cactus. The male does not have an oral apparatus but has a pair of wings that serve to move and fertilize the female; he lives three days only. The insects that produce this substance are very small, but they are very rich in coloring, with adult females reaching up to 21% of the product in its dry weight.
As the Eroski Consumer website explains, it is in “syrups, jams, marmalades, jelly beans, industrial cakes, and medicine; they all contain E-120. Also in canned vegetables, ice cream and dairy products such as strawberry or red fruit yogurts and in meat products and beverages”. Missing from this long list are some energy drinks, vermouth, and cold cuts.
The industry and the marketing hide their presence using names like: carmine, carminic acid, or the criptic E-120.
Why can’t vegetarians, vegans, and many omnivores see it? Because it is done from small insects: the Dactylopius coccus, popularly known as cochineal bugs. And it is that although they are not seen directly when consuming this colorant, they obviously come from the animal world and are in many of the foods we consume daily. The vegetarian collective has mobilized on many occasions against this dye. One of its most notorious international campaigns required large food brands to stop using cochineal bugs in foods with headlines as powerful as “Tell Dannon to choose berries and not insects for their yogurts” or “You eat insects and you still didn’t realize it.” It may seem disgusting to know that the industry regularly uses these insects, but “it is an ancient and natural practice that was used more than 2,000 years ago. The Spanish introduced it in the 16th century to dye clothes and give food a red color”, says Lorenzo Pérez, producer of this insect for an industry in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
Where is cochineal bug used? In practically everything. According to Lorenzo Perez, the cochineal is present in “the meat industry, in dairy products, in high-quality cosmetics, lip paints, nail polishes, in sweets, in alcoholic beverages, in the pharmaceutical industry, in textiles, in historical paintings and also in high-end industrial paintings in buildings with luxury or historical design”.
To achieve this coloring, these cactus species are cultivated for two years. Subsequently, the plants are infested with mother cochineal bugs ready to breed and are manually introduced into small porous cloth bags. “We place these sachets on cochineal bug-free plants. After 3 months, you can proceed to collect the new mothers that have parasitized the plant”, says Lorenzo Pérez.
This process is usually done with a characteristic metal spoon for this purpose or by gently sweeping with appropriate brushes to remove the cochineal from the plant. The next steps are already in the laboratory, where the bugs are ground, boiled and filtered to achieve carminic acid: the pure pigment. From there, the process becomes more chemical, since aluminum and calcium salts are added, which work as chelators, to make it more stable and edible at the same time.
The appearance of the cochineal bugs is not very attractive: they have webs that join them together and are very small in size of just five millimeters. They are one of the few insects that produce carminic acid, which in theory works as a protection so that other insects do not eat them, but which is the key to their commercial exploitation due to its pigmentation. 100,000 females are needed to obtain a kilo of product. It’s a small number, but there are an estimated 200 million insects for every human being on Earth.
Although many were wary at the time of a report  by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that promoted the consumption of edible insects as a sustainable protein solution, the truth is that we were already eating insects like the cochineal bug without knowing it.
You decide, keep ingesting cochineal with E-120 or stop eating red things that are not fruits or vegetables of that color.
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL SOURCES – http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf – Article based on an original text by Gonzalo López-Huerta.
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