Modern Uses and Controversies

Modern Uses

Mary Miley Theobald’s article, Putting the Red in Redcoats, discusses  the use of cochineal during the colonial period.. Theobald explains that both cochineal and madder root were used to dye the uniforms of the British Redcoats. For government issued uniforms the British government  used madder because it was less expensive than cochineal, however officers who supplied their own uniforms preferred cochineal due to its vibrancy. Leather workers also used cochineal as a red stain. A very versatile dye, cochineal was also an ingredient  incorporated into food and beverages, and can be found in period cookbooks such as Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery, published in 1747, and M. Radcliffe’s Domestic Cookery from 1823, which calls for cochineal whenever a red color is desired. In addition, the 1754 Dictionary of Arts and Sciences instructs “the good housewife” on how to make refreshing coolers with lemonade, wine, and spring water, “adding a little cochineal, sugar, or rose-water.” Cochineal was also believed to have medicinal properties.  It was prescribed to counter ingested poison and was also believed to lift one’s spirits. . Evidently, cochineal was a versatile and vital commodity in colonial life, and was processed to serve a variety of needs relating to dye, food and beverage consumption, or medicine.

Cochineal, also called carmine, is still used widely today and can be found in many food, beverage, and cosmetic products. Cochineal is a natural colorant, and commonly appears on ingredient lists as Natural Red 4, Carmine, CI75470, or E120. Listed below are just some of the food and other commonly used products that may contain carmine, as well as cosmetic companies that currently use carmine as a colorant in their products:

  • Some foods and cosmetics that may contain cochineal-derived colorant:
    • Frozen meat and fish (artificial crab meat)
    • Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and powdered drink mixes
    • Yogurts, ice creams, and dairy-based drinks
    • Candy, syrups, popsicles, fillings, and chewing gum
    • Canned fruits including cherries and jams
    • Dehydrated and canned soups
    • Ketchup
    • Some wines and liqueurs
    • Lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, nail polish, other cosmetic items
    • Pills, ointments, and syrups used in the pharmaceutical industry
  • Cosmetic companies that use Carmine/CI75470,E120:
    • Burt’s Bees
    • Huda Beauty
    • Physician’s Formula
    • Jane Iredale
    • Maybelline
    • L’Oreal

Cochineal Controversies

With the introduction of synthetic dyes in 1857, came the decline of naturally derived dyes on the world market due to increased costs and availability. However, there was a cochineal resurgence in 1976 when the Food and Drug Administration banned Red Dye No 2, a natural red dye derived from amaranth seeds. When ingested in high doses it was identified as a carcinogen in laboratory rats. As a result, food, beverage, and cosmetic companies turned  to cochineal, as it is also a “natural” dye that is neither toxic or carcinogenic. The global coffee company, Starbucks, however, came under fire in 2012 for the use of cochineal in many of the pink-colored drinks and desserts. The coffee giant discontinued their use of cochineal after concern was expressed from vegans, vegetarians, and those who are allergic to cochineal. Since then, Starbucks has transitioned to using lycopene, a natural tomato based food and beverage coloring that is used in their strawberry sauce. Cochineal has also been removed from the Raspberry Swirl Cake, Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing, and Red Velvet Whoopie Pie.

The cultivation and production of cochineal for food, beverage, and cosmetic products has received criticism from vegans, vegetarians, and animal rights activists who expressed concern over the welfare of the cochineal insect. The article Global Cochineal Production: Scale, Welfare Concerns, and Potential Interventions, by Abraham Rowe and published in 2020 elaborates on how the practices of the cochineal farming and harvesting industry can be perceived as inhumane. Rowe discusses the difference between the harvesting of farmed and wild cochineal insects. Farmed cochineals involves adding the female insects to the prickly pear cactus and then harvesting them when they reach maturity and are at maximum dye production levels. Wild cochineals are also harvested at maturity, but there are fewer casualties in the process. Rowe has estimated that between 22-89 billion adult female cochineal insects are killed annually for the production of carmine dye, of which between 17-71 billion are wild, and between 4-18 billion are farmed. While the farming process might initially seem less controversial, Rowe argues that the farming of cochineal insects causes an additional 4.6-21 trillion deaths of mostly male and female cochineal nymphs, and adult males. Not only is the overwhelming number of cochineal insects killed a concern for insect advocates, but the way in which these bugs are killed is also under question. 

There are four methods used to kill cochineals: immersion in hot water, exposure to sunlight, steam, and dry heat (oven). While these methods appear to be inhumane, Rowe also adds that cochineals have a life expectancy averaging 70-90 days.  When farmed the harvest date is calculated based on maturity and they are harvested at the end of their life span. In the wild, if the cochineal insects are not harvested they will die from a naturally occurring process of starvation. This occurs when the insect releases its mouth from the cactus they are feeding off, which relinquishes them of the ability to reattach their mouth. Which cultivation process, farmed or wild, is better or more humane is an unresolved ethical question.  Some argue that because the females are harvested toward the end of their lives, it is possible that death due to the dye production process is less painful as it is virtually instantaneous whereas the natural death by starvation takes between 3-5 days.

To reduce the number of cochineal deaths, Rowe suggests promoting synthetic, or non-insect natural dyes. Because synthetic dyes are cheaper, this would decrease the amount of cochineal deaths. While the use of synthetic dyes would benefit the cochineal population, manufacturers prefer organic cochineal over synthetic, because synthetic cochineal is too complicated and thus costly to create. Both the production of organic and synthetic cochineal affects humans, the cochineal population, and the environment. Clearly, there are disadvantages to both modes of production, there is no way to acquire cochineal without some form of controversy, unless the entire industry was shut down indefinitely. 

Cochineal producers in Mexico are opting for greenhouses or plastic microtunnels to cover the cacti during the gestation process. This method has been found to increase productivity by protecting the cochineals from predation and the elements. Peru, the largest producer and exporter of cochineal, is also working to protect its cochineal industry. The country holds 80-83% of the global production share, and is Peru’s largest source of income. They utilize the cochineal industry to improve its employment rate among rural areas of the country, and cochineal farmers depend on the industry for their livelihood. Currently, a cochineal farmer can earn more than 10% of the cochineal extract market’s revenue. While the industry may face opposition for its high number of cochineal deaths, farmers in rural communities are dependent upon the farming and harvesting industry to survive.