Echo Park, Los Angeles, California, United States

Bug Juice

The red on my finger in this photo isn't blood, it's carminic acid. It comes from "el gran cochinea" aka carmine or cochineal - the white silky "beetle" that lives on Prickly Pear cacti.

When traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico it was explained to me that this was a parasite that invaded cacti and that it could be cultivated to make coloring for make-up, paints, etc.

Later I was back in the U.S. and reading the ingredient list of a "juice product" called Frutopia. I noticed that one of the ingredients was something called "cochineal extract." It sounded familiar. Having far too much time on my hands, I called the toll-free customer service telephone number listed on the label and told the woman on the other end of the line that I had a question about the contents of Fruitopia.

"Can you tell me what cochineal extract is?"

She read off a typically safe and bland corporate statement about how it was a "natural FDA approved additive".

"Yes, but what is it? Where does it come from? Is it made in a lab? Does it somehow just...occur in nature?"

She reread the same statement about how safe it was, so I finally came out and asked "Isn't it bug juice? Isn't cochineal extract extracted from bugs? It's bug juice, right?"

The poor woman. She finally went along with me and said that while the makers of Fruitopia didn't choose to see it that way, yes, she supposed, in the grand scheme of things, cochineal extract is (FDA approved) bug juice.

Later I did some digging and found an article about cochineal production in Peru that states "The rich red of carmine is used in a wide range of foods - from meats to sweets..."

Finally, this wikipedia article has all kinds of fascinating info about the role this tiny beetle has played in art, fashion and food since at least the 1400s.

Who knew?

Bug Juice