Food Talk


Written by Lori Zappala of Lori’s Lipsmacking Goodness

Some time ago someone left a comment on my blog that alluded to red food dye being something she would not like to have anymore since finding out its origins. The comment certainly piqued my interest so I was off to do some research online to find out just exactly where red food dye came from.

I found my answer, it comes from bugs. Bugs? Yes, bugs. As you can see here in the picture, the cochineal beetle, the female, is a lovely shade of red. These beetles have been used for making red food dye since at least the 1500’s by the Mixtecs, a tribe of Indians in Mexico. They would collect the bugs off the prickly pear cactus and use them to dye garments to indicate social status. The Spaniards came along and were fascinated by the color. They began to sell it to the Europeans. It was then used in textiles. It hasn’t stopped since. (Red Scales in the Sunset).

The other red food dyes that came along were #2 and #40, from synthetic red aniline dyes (from coal tar). However, these dyes were determined to be carcinogenic. Cochineal was reestablished as an acceptable food dye. It is used in the following products; pork sausage, pies, dried fish and shrimp, candies, pills, jams, lipstick and rouge, and the brightly colored maraschino cherries. (Red Scales in the Sunset).

Of course you always have options you can avoid all commercially produced food containing red dye if the idea eeks you out. Anytime you need red food dye in the kitchen you could uses beets instead, say for, Red Velvet Cake. I used beets to color some bread I made. Red and yellow onion skins make a fine red dye as well. See the eggs that were colored by onion skins. Onion skins were used in parts of Europe to color Easter eggs, this signified the “blood of Christ”.

You may be wondering where some of the other dyes come from. “ Currently, any blue or green food on the U.S. market gets its hues from certifiable colors FD&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue), Blue No. 2 (Indigotine), or Green No. 3 (Fast Green). Blue No. 1 and Green No. 3 are both petroleum-derived triphenylmethanes–that is, they have three aromatic rings attached to a central carbon atom. Blue No. 2 is a disodium sulfonate of a naturally occurring compound called indigo. However, the indigo used to create Blue No. 2 is synthesized by fusing N-phenylglycine in a molten mix of sodamide and sodium and potassium hydroxides.” (Gilman, V; Chemical and Engineering News, August 25,2003; Volume 81, Number 34).

You may also be wondering, why do we need the dyes to begin with. Here are some of the reasons that the Food and Drug Administration asserts. “To offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, extremes of temperature, moisture and storage conditions. To correct natural variations in color. Off-colored foods are often incorrectly associated with inferior quality. To enhance colors that occur naturally but at levels weaker than those usually associated with a given food. To provide a colorful identity to foods that would otherwise be virtually colorless. To protect flavors and vitamins that may be affected by sunlight during storage.”

So now you are a little more of an informed consumer. You can simply do as I did and not think about where that red food dye came from. I say that because for some reason it really doesn’t bother me. Maybe because it is kind of removed. Now, if I had to say, squeeze the beetle, I might think twice about it. Besides, it is natural isn’t it? I guess I would rather eat bugs than coal. I’d love to hear your thoughts about whether it would bug, I mean, bother you or not. Leave a comment. Let me know.

Quote #1- UCLA, Prof Artur C. Gibson

Quote #2- Food Coloring

Quote #3- Food and Drug Administration

Picture #2 Cochineal Insect Picture, courtesy of Peter J. Bryant

Picture #3 Eggs Dyed with onion skins. Lori’s Lipsmacking Goodness

Picture #4 Bread dough dyed with beets. Lori’s Lipsmacking Goodness

Phemomenon's picture
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Joined: 03/25/2009

I’ll admit, it did eek me out for a moment… but I don’t think it will stop me from using it either. That was a lot of great information though! Thank you for putting that together!

Audax Artifex
Audax Artifex's picture
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It doesn’t worry me one iota I always knew since my mum used flowers bugs and vegetables to dye food and fibres since I was small. And ain’t bugs natural. I admit most people are going to freak out when they read what red colouring is and the other colours.

amelia's picture
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Oh, the first paragraph freaked me out a little, I thought you were gonna say red dye came from something poisonous or harmful! I once read an article that said that commercial cinnamon is not really cinnamon but some poisonous cousin or something. Anyways, nothing wrong with bugs! In fact I feel safer using it now, I always assumed food dye came from chemicals! =) Sooo is it right to say the red dye is a source of protein then? Another reason to us dye =)

CoffeeGrounded's picture
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I don’t use food dyes often, but when I do, I use them judiciously. And that, I believe, is my answer to whether or not I’m concerned.

Let’s face it, if we worried about every little item in the universe we wouldn’t get very far in this life. Having said this, I do realize that there are people whose very lives hang in the balance because of food allergies to dyes, etc. It goes without saying, these very items pose far too great a risk to be used even in the most minute amounts, and when baking for others, we should be cognizant of of these facts and act accordingly.


User offline. Last seen 10 weeks 2 days ago. Offline

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I have tried to do the devil food coloring cake with beet juice, but has failed brown. The raw dough was a beautiful pink, brown cuece has become!

tastyTrifles's picture
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Well, I’m a vegetarian, but closer to being vegan when it comes to these types of animal products (i.e., gelatin in marshmallows, etc). So I’m sad to hear that it’s in so many commercial foods! Not that I love buying pre-packaged stuff, but this just means more reading of labels in the grocery store for me. Can’t they come up with a bug and coal-free option??

Thanks for all the research Smile

papawow's picture
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Bugs don’t creep my out nearly as much as petroleum. Great article!

sweetiepetitti's picture
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I remember my mom’s red velvet cake way back in the 70’s when red dye#2 was still out there. She would dump 2 entire bottles in that cake, and when they changed the dye I never understood why the cake didn’t taste the same…I guess I’ll adapt to the bugs over a carcinogen!

Dianasaur's picture
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That’s funny! I’ve never been bothered by it being made from bugs, I found out as a kid at a museum bug exhibit. I guess I thought it was cool. Two things in my favor though, I volunteer with teenagers and so have eaten live bugs before as camp dares, and I’ve traveled to several third world countries where eating bugs is how to survive. I say no big deal Smile

Lori Lipsmacking
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I have a correction to make, the cochineal insect is a bug not a beetle.

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