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