Yes some candies and other foods can be coloured with cochineal extract which is an approved food additive. Hernan Cortez was the first European to learn about this colourant when he became intrigued by the beautifully colored Aztec fabrics. He learned that the source of the dye was what appeared to be seeds on a cactus plant. But closer scrutiny revealed that they were not seeds at all, they were little bugs. Today we know them simply as “cochineal” and the dye they yield as “carmine.”. Montezuma was so fond of red robes produced from carmine dyed fabric, that he imposed a tax upon his subjects that had to be paid in dried cochineal bugs
It is the pregnant female insect that produces the brilliant red dye which became the first product ever exported from the old world to the new. Soon Europeans were dying their wool and silk with the insect extract. Maybe the most memorable use of cochineal red was in the bright scarlet colors for which the Gobelin tapestries of Paris became famous.
Producing the dye was not an easy business. The female insects which feed on the red cactus berries and concentrate the dye in their bodies and in that of their unhatched larvae, are scraped off the cactus and dumped into hot water where they instantly die. They are then dried in the sun and crushed into a powder. This can then be added to water or to a water-alcohol mixture for dying purposes. For fabrics, a mordant such as alum, which binds the color to the material is often used. Carminic acid, the active coloring agent, is one of the safest dyes that exist. It is commonly used in foods and cosmetics. Candies, ice cream, beverages, yogurt, lipstick and eye shadow can all be colored with cochineal.
Allergies are possible but are rare. There have been case reports about reactions to Campari, pink popsicles, maraschino cherries and red lipstick, but these are less frequent than reactions to other components in foods and cosmetics. In one instance, a little boy’s face swelled when he was kissed by his loving grandmother. It seems he had been sensitized to carmine probably through food or candies and reacted to the coloring in the lipstick. When reactions do occur they tend to be in the form of hives and swelling although one case of anaphylactic reaction to Campari-Orange has been reported.
The cochineal insects are very small. It takes about 70,000 females to produce a pound of dye. The males are quite useless in this quest. Like the males of most species, they are duller than the females. They are also rare and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible.. So how are they separated? Well, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. When the cactus is disturbed, the males scoot, but the females cannot escape. They are scraped off, destined to color our cherry or strawberry ice cream. I know that many of you may not find the prospect of ice cream colored with bug juice appetizing, but it is an effective and safe dye. And of course, it’s all natural.