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Bug in Your Punch

An insect called the cochineal, once prized by the Aztecs, is now the source of red dye used in foods, beverages and even makeup.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

What does our state plant — the prickly pear cactus — share in common with selected brands of strawberry yogurt, fruit punch and powdered blush?

You might be surprised to know that it’s a bug.

The next time you’re out hiking, get up close to a prickly pear pad and look for white cottony splotches. They conceal female cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a scale insect that resembles a mealybug. When squashed, these peppercorn-sized parasites ooze carminic acid, a bright crimson liquid that’s dried and used to produce a red dye. Female cochineal live 90 to 120 days; winged males mature, mate prolifically and die within a week.

Ancient Aztecs farmed cochineal to color fabrics and pottery. As emperor, Montezuma claimed the most brilliant shades of red for his robes and even imposed a cochineal tax. In 1519, Spanish conquistadors shipped bags of dried cochineal from Mexico to Spain, which then monopolized supplies. Other countries wanted the pigment, too, but the Spanish went to great lengths to conceal the source of the dye from the rest of the world. For centuries, most people didn’t even know whether the red powder was derived from a plant or an animal. The ensuing period of international espionage is recounted in A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (published by Harper Perennial), an intriguing read by Amy Butler Greenfield.

Today, Peru produces more than 1,200 tons of cochineal annually, 85 percent share of the world’s demand. Roughly 70,000 dried insects yield one pound of powdered carminic acid, the agent used to color foods, cosmetics, medicines and textiles. On product labels, it’s listed as “carmine” and “cochineal extract.”

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