This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Of all the substances on Earth, very few can make rich, soulful red. It’s the red of lipstick and cheek blush, berry-flavored yogurt, juices, imitation crab, and, until the ingredient was dropped in 2012, Starbucks’ strawberry smoothies. The compound that makes this red helps explain why the chain’s customers recoiled: It’s pulverized insects.
For the National Geographic web series Ingredients, chemist George Zaidan studies what’s inside the food we eat and the items we commonly use. The extract of cochineal tends to come up a lot. The cochineal bugs—a species of scale insect—are a centuries-old colorant. In the 19th century, chemists figured out how to make a synthetic alternative. But 21st-century consumers insist on ingredients that are “natural”—which means the bugs are back in season.
Is there any risk to eating crunched-up-insect extract? The Food and Drug Administration says no—as do people in Ghana, Papua New Guinea, and Bali, who make termites, beetle larvae, or dragonflies an occasional part of their diet. The U.S. food-regulating agency permits a generous threshold of insects in foods before they’re considered contaminated: up to 60 aphids in 100 grams of frozen broccoli or 550 insect fragments per average box of pasta. In inspectors’ view, bugs happen.
Cochineal extract has few restrictions, provided it’s labeled clearly and not with a euphemism like “natural colors.” And to some food manufacturers, an organic, reliable, and beautiful source of color is a no-brainer. The obstacle tends to be psychological—but in Zaidan’s opinion, consumers should get over it. “With few exceptions, your body can handle pretty much anything you eat,” he says. “So if you don’t think about it, you’ll be fine.”