Strawberry yogurt, it makes for a quick, delicious breakfast or mid-afternoon snack. You might think its pink color comes from the red strawberries mixed with white yogurt, right? Well, if the ingredients include carminic acid, cochineal [coach-ih-NEAL], E120, or Natural Red 4: your yogurt is actually colored with powdered insects!
You can also find this bug-based dye in other pink and red foods, like jello and candy, plus some cosmetics like lipstick. Even though insects in your food may sound kinda gross, it is a natural dye, and perfectly safe to eat as long as you’re not allergic to it.
This bright red dye is produced by a specific kind of true bug: female cochineal scale insects. They live and breed on prickly pear cacti, and have been harvested for dye for hundreds of years. While the winged males can fly to mate and escape predators, life as a female scale insect is pretty simple: suck sap and protect yourself.
The first thing she does after hatching is stick her mouthparts into her host cactus and start feeding. She stays there her entire life, and uses a couple tricks for protection: secreting a waxy, white coating and synthesizing carminic acid. The carminic acid molecules are stored as clumps in her hemolymph – the insect equivalent of our blood – and ward off some would-be predators, like ants, and harmful microbes.
Carminic acid also happens to be bright red. These cochineal insects can be packed full of it – up to around 20% of their dried bodyweight! Each bug is about as big as a grain of rice, so you have to collect, dry, crush, and process tens of thousands of them for each kilogram of cochineal dye. It’s intense work, but scale insects have been farmed by the Aztec and indigenous people of Mexico since at least the 10th Century.
The dye was a massive hit with the Spanish colonials in the 16th Century after they conquered these peoples. They treated cochineal like “red gold,” and were the first to sell cochineal products – mostly dyed fabrics – across the world. Today, the main exporters of the red dye are Peru and the Canary Islands, where the bugs are farmed on prickly pear plantations.
So, not everyone’s happy with the idea of a bug-based dye, even though humans have been using it for centuries. But there are less buggy ways to give strawberry yogurt a pink hue. There’s lycopene [LIE-co-peen], from tomatoes, and anthocyanins [an-tho-SY-an-ins] from red cabbage. And there’s always, you know, just leaving the pale color from the strawberries alone.