Natural Red 4, the Insect Dye

Many techniques have been used through history to create and master color. Only recently has synthetic dye come into play, before the 19th century all dyes were created through fairly direct and natural means. One such dye is still used today and it is made from scale insects called cochineal.

Illustration by C. E. A. Semple, Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (1892)
Illustration by C. E. A. Semple, Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (1892)

Cochineal are small insects that live and feed off the moisture on cacti. They are farmed through two methods: traditional and nesting. The traditional method is fairly straightforward; cochineal are placed on cacti or are harvested from affected cacti. A more controlled method is more commonly seen today using “Zapotec nests”. These nests are small woven baskets that provide a safe environment, protected from the rain, cold, and any predators. It also helps to control the location of the cochineal.

Harvesting cochineal has a history stretching back to the Zapotec culture
Harvesting cochineal has a history stretching back to the Zapotec culture

Because it is highly resistant to degradation from light, heat, and oxidation, it can be found in use around the globe. The resistance to light degradation makes it quite usable in fabrics (you may have a red t-shirt at home dyed using this). Because of it’s bright color and natural origins, cosmetics companies use “crimson lake” color for reds and purples (the purples being made by adding a little lime to the dye). Cochineal coloring is even found in food products!

Dried cochineal insects
Dried cochineal insects

Food is possibly the largest category using this dye. Food coloring, Skittles, Twizzlers, imitation crab, Kool-Aid, many soft and hard drinks, and more have Red 40 in them. And while many people react in disgust to this revelation, there shouldn’t be much fear over the insect dye. Of the studies conducted, the only risk that occurs is when an allergy is present.

A delicious insect confection
A delicious insect confection

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