The Cochineal – The Bug You Probably Eat Regularly

Ground Cochineal Bugs
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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 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 red, or drinking a beverage that is colored, you just might be consuming insects.

Images of Products with Cochineal in them: Nerds candy, Ocean Spray Juice, Dole Fruit and Jello cups, Yoplait Yogurt

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Revolutionary War Era Uniform - Red Coat

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Cochineals 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. It reflects a bright crimson-red and sets better than many other natural dyes. 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.



Cochineal Bug Smeared on Cactus

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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.




Once the insects are gathered from the cactus, they are dried-out and then ground into a powder. The ground-up insect powder is then added to water to produce the bright red dye found in many foods in grocery stores today.


More about the cochineal bug (yes, that bug you eat) in video below: 🙂




Editor’s Note: With sustainability issues around the globe, perhaps a diet rich in bug protein could be an alternative for meat eaters. Thoughts? Please Comment below.



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Keywords: eating bugs, bug eating, cochineal



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