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The Cochineal – The Bug You Probably Eat Regularly

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

Eating bugs (insectophagy) has been a very common part of civilization for thousands of years. What’s that? You think you don’t consume insects? Think again. You probably do!

Besides the millions of tons of insects that are ground up in flour, corn, and other plants we eat, insects are also used in food dyes. If you are eating yogurt that is a red color, or drinking a beverage that has any color, you just might be consuming insects.

Cochineals (Koh chee knee' uls) are a bug that's about the size of a bed bug (3.5 to 5mm). They are native to Central and South America and have been used in food dyes and fabrics for hundreds of years. They are gathered by hand or cultivated in tiny protected habitats. They are then killed, sorted, and dried. When crushed and mixed with water, bright crimson-red appears. The red comes from the cactus berries they eat. The red pigment concentrates in their bodies (much as how a person that eats too many carrots can appear orange).

Afro-Mexican slaves and Mexican Indians harvested the insects for their bright red dye which was used in British Red Coats.

In the 17th century, cochineal was the biggest trade item after silver and was exported all over the world. In recent times, the practice is coming back strongly due to concerns about artificial ingredients in foods.

Cochineals live on the pads of prickly pear cactus and secrete a white waxy substance for protection from the sun. Females are usually cultivated as the males only live long enough to mate (about a week). The cochineal males have wings but remain inactive when not disturbed. The males and females produce carminic acid which deters predators. This acid is what produces the red coloring; and thus, it's what makes cochineals so valuable.

Enjoy your yogurt. :-)

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