Cochineal Sets an Example to us All

1 Sep 2014

If we look at history, the aesthetic aspects of food were not a major consideration until relatively recently, and began to change fundamentally with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. (Today, for example, a Spanish paella rice dish would be unacceptable to any Spaniard without the saffron yellow coloring. My grandmother would send it back to the kitchen). From […]

Cochineal Sets an Example to us All

If we look at history, the aesthetic aspects of food were not a major consideration until relatively recently, and began to change fundamentally with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. (Today, for example, a Spanish paella rice dish would be unacceptable to any Spaniard without the saffron yellow coloring. My grandmother would send it back to the kitchen).

From the early nineteenth century, a trend developed to add substances to food for cosmetic reasons, including an increasing list of additives – many of which resulted in significant health hazards. In recent decades, we have seen a movement to combat the adulteration of foods with colorants containing heavy metals, dangerous organic and inorganic elements and so on.  The 20th century, with improved chemical analysis and deeper awareness, has led to the “positive listing”, indicating the substances that meet the criteria for human consumption.

Today’s concern, however, right after consumer protection, should be the environment, through the use of natural, non-toxic and biodegradable substances. In the world of edible insects, we find the Dactylopius coccus – better known as cochineal, source of one of the few water-soluble red colorants to resist degradation with time, and also one of the most light- and heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural organic colorants. It is even more stable than many synthetic food colors.

So here it is, “cochineal”, the source of carmine red. This little soldier from nature offers its magic with little to no direct ecological footprint compared to other reds, whose cultivation and processing can require prime land usage, fertilizers, pesticides and significant water. On the other hand, our champion’s natural habitat is desert to semi-desert land in underdeveloped areas, with cactus as its host.  Cochineal’s carminic acid is the ideal candidate for the food industry to compensate, in an eco-friendly way, for color variations and loss due to light, air, extremes of temperature, moisture, and storage conditions in its capricious marketing war.

After taking into consideration dietary practices, religious beliefs and dealing with possible allergies the same way as any other allergen, cochineal, with today’s industrial challenge of feeding the world without destroying the planet, could contribute to the increasing food colorant additive demand in a responsible way.

The key drawback, which is psychological, would be cochineal’s major challenge – the insect- sourced “yuck factor“, mostly driven by a lack of knowledge, custom and information by the general public.

In the FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook, insect parts are considered as one of the natural or unavoidable defects in food production that present no health hazards for humans – yet nobody seems to stop consuming  chocolate, peanut butter, marmalade, tomato sauce – or wine, for that matter –  where insect parts are frequently present.

Every trend has its consequences for the global environment. The current pace of food consumption calls for better understanding of the issues rather than a simple impulse of disgust for alternative solutions.  Above all, we must make sure that the other options on the table avoid becoming part of the problem, by taking into consideration arable land, water depletion, carbon food print and other key factors.

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