Why Some Food Coloring is Made of Bugs

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When you read the ingredients label on the back of a bottle of juice, you probably automatically divide them into recognizable components—like fruits and vegetables—and more mysterious compounds, like “cochineal,” “carminic acid,” or “Natural Red 4.”

Most of us don’t put too much thought into the more cryptic ingredients in our foods, but some of those mystery compounds actually have a surprising source—bugs.

It turns out “cochineal,” “carminic acid,” and “Natural Red 4” are all a form of red food coloring that comes from the cochineal scale, a tiny insect indigenous to Central and South America. Humans have been using cochineal as a dye since at least the 1500s, and it can still be found in a range of foods and cosmetics.

According to WIRED, the bugs are covered in a layer of fluffy wax, which actually makes them look more white than red. Their red dye, found under their waxy exterior, was developed to repel ants. The pigment, made of carminic acid, works as a chemical weapon against predators—but it also makes great natural food coloring. Though the use of cochineal has become more controversial in recent years (consumers tend to be a bit squeamish about the idea of bugs in their food, even if it’s really just the extracted dye), it can still be found in yogurts, juices, lipsticks, and blushes. It’s even used to give color to artificial crab meat—which means your fake crab is made of real bugs.

Companies keep using the dye despite controversy in part because it’s the healthiest option. While cochineal occasionally provokes allergic reactions in consumers—and certainly isn’t kosher—it’s still better for you than synthetic dyes. Red No. 2 and Red No. 40, for instance, are made of coal or petroleum byproducts, and carry much greater health risks. So, having a bit of bug in your juice may actually be the healthiest option.

[h/t: WIRED]