Beetles: Love Me Do

23 Sep 2014

The South American beetle has been used as food colorant for centuries, giving bright red colouring to soup, ketchup, sauces, jams and canned fruits. You may have seen recent controversies with coffee outlets starbucking their Frappuccinos with crushed bugs, and French food conglomerates including ground-up beetles in state-of-the-art yoghurt products. The use of cochineal (carmine […]

Beetles: Love Me Do

The South American beetle has been used as food colorant for centuries, giving bright red colouring to soup, ketchup, sauces, jams and canned fruits. You may have seen recent controversies with coffee outlets starbucking their Frappuccinos with crushed bugs, and French food conglomerates including ground-up beetles in state-of-the-art yoghurt products.

The use of cochineal (carmine acid) is quite common in food production. That doesn’t decrease the gross-out factor a whole lot, though.

The process

The cochineal insect is native to South America and Mexico, and, contrary to the popular nomenclature, they’re technically not beetles. In fact, they’re tiny insects which live on cactus plants. They feed on Red Cactus berries, which concentrate the colour in their bodies.

They are harvested by traditional and controlled methods, and then boiled in water, followed by a drying, crushing and hydration process from powder to final product. Check out the ingredient labels of any product that could have red dye and look for carmine acid, carmine or cochineal extract.

Health fears over artificial food additives have renewed the popularity of cochineal dyes.

Carmine isn’t just about colouring, either. Like astaxanthin – also a naturally occurring colorant, found in crustaceans and salmon – it’s an antioxidant, so it’s good for you. In fact, it’s 50 times stronger than vitamin E in that regard. It is certainly better for you than any synthetic colour derived from coal tar. Would you rather be eating a pigment created by insects – or a derivative of fossil fuel?

We have probably been eating ground-up red beetles for years. We just didn’t know it. Although no negative health effects have been reported from eating carmine, the name on the label can be misleading. People have the right to know what they’re eating, even if it does not pose a health risk. This is especially true when ingredients are derived from living creatures. The FDA’s food labelling requirements should be a lot clearer, and not cloaked in secret food industry codes that nobody else really understands.

As with most food labelling issues, awareness is the ultimate answer. If enough people become aware of the truth about carmine as a natural food colorant in food and its benefits when compared to artificial colorants, this could open the door for increased production, leading to a supply/demand boost for what is, after all, technically a natural product.

What’s required is that the health benefits of natural colorants like carmine need to be sold while downplaying the gross-out factor of eating, for example, crushed insects. With the right good old fashioned guerrilla marketing techniques that have been around as long as food colorants, who knows? – carmine might just go viral.

Related tags

Blogs New Natural Innovation

Related news

What role do omega-3s play in sports nutrition?

What role do omega-3s play in sports nutrition?

10 Jul 2018

Omega-3 fatty acids have increasingly become part of athletes’ nutritional regime over the past few years but research supporting their role in sports nutrition is still in its early stages.

Read more 
Could nature-identical ingredients damage the natural sweeteners market?

Could nature-identical ingredients damage the natural sweeteners market?

4 Jul 2018

Natural sweeteners are a major target for companies looking to make nature-identical food ingredients, but if they are produced in a lab rather than extracted from a plant, will consumers accept them as natural?

Read more 
How does honey compare to sugar?

How does honey compare to sugar?

27 Jun 2018

Sugar use is down and honey use is up as manufacturers look for natural sweetening alternatives – but does honey live up to the hype?

Read more 
Fruit and vegetable powders add clean label nutrition, colour and flavour

Fruit and vegetable powders add clean label nutrition, colour and flavour

25 Jun 2018

Fruit and vegetable powders are appearing in a range of foods and drinks to improve their flavour, colour, nutrition and texture, driven by the trend toward whole foods and consumer desire to boost fruit and vegetable consumption.

Read more 
What are the smartest botanical ingredients for brain health?

What are the smartest botanical ingredients for brain health?

20 Jun 2018

As the population ages, botanical ingredients to maintain and improve cognitive health are on the rise. What are they, and what evidence is there to support their claims?

Read more 
Turning a spotlight on healthy fats and oils

Turning a spotlight on healthy fats and oils

19 Jun 2018

European food manufacturers have been turning to healthier oils and fats – but there is often a trade-off to be made, balancing their benefits in terms of flavour and health with how easy they are to work with.

Read more 
Beyond ingredients: Food processing as a tool for cleaner labels

Beyond ingredients: Food processing as a tool for cleaner labels

12 Jun 2018

Ingredients come first when companies think about developing clean label foods and drinks, but certain processing technologies also should be considered part of the clean label toolbox.

Read more 
Plant-based eating boosts European walnut demand

Plant-based eating boosts European walnut demand

12 Jun 2018

The current trend toward plant-based diets and wholesome, natural ingredients has led to increased European demand for walnuts, as consumers have become more aware of their health benefits.

Read more 
Europeans embrace a new wave of seaweed ingredients

Europeans embrace a new wave of seaweed ingredients

6 Jun 2018

Seaweed ingredients are on the rise, set to appear in a wide range of new products in Europe in the coming years – far beyond the traditional sushi and miso soup.

Read more 
How clean label ingredients affect packaging

How clean label ingredients affect packaging

28 May 2018

When companies consider ‘cleaning up’ their product labels, they often focus primarily on how to remove or replace certain ingredients – but they should also consider implications for product packaging.

Read more