Red food dye has always given our beloved red velvet cupcakes their rich, festive color. but all that flavor and color comes with a price and a nasty surprise.
Much of the red coloring we use in food is actually made of crushed bugs. Cochineal insects, as they’re known, are scale insects that, in their pre-crushed state.
Cochineal insects can be found on prickly pear cacti in the North American deserts, where they spends most of their lives sucking away on the plants’ sap. They produce a bitter, crimson-colored pigment called carminic acid, which they store in their guts and use to ward off predators.
To make red dye, manufacturers dry the cochineals and grind them into a powder. The powder then turns a bright red when mixed with water.
The Mixtec Indians of pre-Hispanic Mexico even farmed and domesticated the bugs, using the dye to color their clothing and show off their social status. By the 1900s, Americans began using cochineal dye to color a variety of foods, including sausages, pies, dried shrimp, candy and jams.
Starbucks’ beloved Strawberries and Creme Frappuccinos in 2012, people started to freak.
Starbucks ditched the dye completely, but cochineal dye is still widely used in the food industry — just check the labels on colored Jell-O packages, candies and yogurts for the words carmine, carminic acid or cochineal extract.