The Buzz

The Good, The Bad, and the Red

If you were to walk through the formal section of the Herb Garden, you might walk past the Dye Bed.
Passing the dye plants, you might notice the prickly pear cactus and wonder how that plant is used for a dye. Well, there are two sources of dye from this one plant. The fruit of this plant is juiced and allowed to ferment and it produces a lovely dye ranging from light pink to a dark magenta. The second source of dye is a beautiful red produced by….wait for it…. an INSECT. What?
The cochineal is a scale insect. This scale feeds on prickly pear cactus and protects itself from predators with carminic acid. Besides being a predator deterrent, carminic acid creates a bold, bright, vivid red. The story of cochineal as it affects us today, begins with the Aztecs. The Aztecs used the insect to make glorious red dyes that were vivid and colorfast on fabrics. Spanish merchants – follow ups after the influx of conquistadores – saw the monetary value of this beautiful red. Red, after all, was a color, like purple, that was once used only by those of royalty (and those who thought they were): kings, Roman senators, the Catholic Church, and the British (redcoats, remember?). 
Previously, before cochineal, reds were acquired by red ochre and cinnabar. Neither red ochre nor cinnabar are very colorfast, and cinnabar is toxic. Another plant called madder (in the dye bed, also) is used to make reds, but not the quality of cochineal. The secrets of dyeing with the insect were guarded. The Spanish preferred to keep the information secret, and happily supplied misinformation about the dye, along with forbidding export of the live cochineal from Mexico. It was easy to maintain the charade due to the fragility of the cochineal scale itself. The scale only lives on prickly pear cactus, and requires a specific range of temperature and altitude, making it extremely unlikely at that time that live cochineal would be taken out of Mexico.
Spain reigned supreme as the producer of cochineal red dye for three hundred years. Cochineal was also used to dye foods red, although large amounts were said to make the food bitter, and the bits of included bugs was off-putting. The advent of synthetic dyes in the latter portion of the nineteenth century led to the downfall of the market for cochineal dye. It is on a comeback, however: the banning of Red Dye No. 2 by the FDA in 1976 has induced makers to return to the cochineal insect for red coloring. This dye may be found in products today listed as carmine, cochineal extract, or E120.
The sources I found say this is the only natural red food coloring authorized by the FDA. Before you get all grossed out, the bug parts are removed! Although some people are allergic to the cochineal itself, consider the fact that synthetic dyes – often derived from petroleum – often carry much greater health risks. Cochineal seems to carry no other known health risk aside from the persons who are allergic to it, but may be offensive to persons for ethical reasons (such as vegans and vegetarians). I am an omnivore and find this an interesting culinary aside as I eye my red candy-coated bit of chocolate…
By Sherri McCalla, Curator of Herb Garden
Posted by Memphis Botanic Garden at 8:00 AM


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