Bugged about the Bug

I confess that I’m not all that bugged about bugs. Now granted, I rarely visit Starbucks and when I do, it’s never been for a creamy, pink, Strawberry, calorie laden concoction but the outcry from consumers has surprised me a bit.  Meet the cochineal.

Cochineal on Host CactusWe first became familiar with him when he invaded the prickly pear cactus outside the front door of our home. I was picking at the cotton like substance with a stick and discovered the brilliant beet red color imbedded within it. That was my first clue that this isn’t an ordinary plant virus. Over the years, we’ve scraped it off for a myriad of elementary art projects. When I visited Peru last year, I happened upon a textile group where they were using it to dye wool. I was excited at the familiarity and to learn that when salt was added, it was also used for orange dye. The wonderful ladies also shared that they’ve used it for cosmetic purposes. How else does one achieve those Andean ruby red lips?

Peruvian CochinealSo last week, an apparently concerned barista revealed to media sources that the red magic behind Starbuck’s strawberry drinks, red cake pops and a red velvet whoopie is in fact, the cochineal. I don’t fault her for that at all. In fact, my understanding is that she is vegan and simply wants to get the word out that this drink and a few other food items contain insects so that other vegans are aware. I believe in truth in labeling but I also don’t mind Starbuck’s response. They are using it as a method to move away from synthetic red dyes. That’s a good thing in my mind but then I’m the mom of three school-age boys and know all too well about the effect of red food dyes in – well, actually anything. It’s just that few consumers are aware that the words like carmine, C.I. 75470, cochineal extract, crimson lake, E120, natural red 4 and sometimes even natural coloring, refer to dye derived from an insect.

If you’ve read here for very long, you know I’m not vegan. One of the primary reasons is that I have a deep penchant for farm fresh organic eggs. You might also know that I celebrate Easter and given both, I’m thankful for a story that broke just in time for me to try something new. Enter the carmine dyed Easter egg.

After scraping the cactus, we whisked the output with hotwater and then strained it. We soaked each of the hard-boiled eggs in the solution for about 5 minutes. On the second batch, I added white vinegar. Initially the solution turned a chili-pepper orange color but as you can see, the eggs that I did in that part are more of a camo-variety. Still, they might be popular with the boys.

If you do celebrate Easter, have a wonderful weekend. If you don’t celebrate Easter, likewise.


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75 Comments

  1. Very cool eggs. As for Starbucks, I think full disclosure in the first place would have been the high road. I’m not a vegan either (nor have I had that drink), but I’m certainly in favor of knowing what’s in my food.
    Happy Easter to you……
    Eleanor

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  2. Again, what do people expect? The blinders people insist on wearing is kind of exhausting….

    I didn’t really have a problem with it either – it probably isn’t required to be on the labels just like pink slime. I kind of agree that I’m sure someone at Starbucks is surely a vegan and knew that people would feel tricked. I think things should be called what they are.

    Just like McDonalds not telling Hindus that french fries were cooked in beef tallow – dirty trick I say….

    Cool eggs… enjoy. Are you going to pickle them next?

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  3. Great post! I’ve been reading a book by Victoria Boutenko (the woman who launched the green smoothie trend, among other things) called 12 Steps to Raw Foods, and she has a great chapter on eating insects. She, like most people who follow a raw food diet, is vegan, but there are some really interesting considerations when it comes to the idea of eating insects.

    She pointed out that if we as a culture were *comfortable* with the idea of eating insects (instead of totally OMG grossed out, like the Starbucks thing shows), then we could: use fewer pesticides (better for us PLUS fewer insects would ultimately be killed, which is relevant from a vegan standpoint), non-vegetarians could get more of their protein from insects and less from animals that experience suffering more profoundly, and organic gardeners, who handpick tons of bugs off their “vegan” plants, could eat or sell the insects rather than destroying them.

    I think this is fascinating and something I’ve never thought about before! I’ve resolved to work towards being more comfortable with insects in my food. I’ve had farmers explain to me that it’s really tough to control aphids on organic broccoli, cauliflower, and other crucifers, because topical pesticides don’t do much for them. In conventional farming, they use the kind of pesticides that permeate the whole plant, so the aphids become poisoned when they eat it, rather than trying to kill them on the surface. (And if THAT’S not a reason to eat organic…) But I’ve still been really grossed out when I get a head of cauliflower that is permeated with aphids. After reading that chapter I think instead of being grossed out I’ll try being grateful that instead of toxic chemicals, I’m getting a little extra protein!

    (However, this is entirely different than the Starbucks issue from a vegan point of view. It’s silly to think we can avoid ever ingesting insects. But that is not the same as objecting to them being cultivated and deliberately included in food – that makes that food not vegan.)

    Reply
    • I haven’t read that book but I’ve read some similar things and in terms of protein, we’d benefit a lot by having a few insects instead of chicken wings. Of course, I don’t eat chicken wings but it is something to contemplate. I would like to read her book.

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  4. Terrific post! Great eggs! When I was a child we always cooked a batch of eggs with onion skins, for a nice rich red-brown. Now that my daughters are grown, that’s the only way I color eggs.

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  5. Mands

     /  April 7, 2012

    Happy Easter Tammy, looks like messy fun! *Grin* Enjoy, Mands

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  6. The use of natural products is a key element for me! Happy Easter to you and your family :)

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  7. I’ve used cochineal for years and have actually never thought about where it comes from . Certainly no idea it came from an insect! Love your dyed eggs. Happy Easter! xx

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    • So I’m guessing that you can buy it commercially which I’ve never really thought about.

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  8. Love how these Easter eggs look, Tammy, very pretty!

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  9. I don’t eat eggs . . . or frequent Starbucks . . . but found this article fascinating from first to last. The marble look you achieved is beautiful.

    Be well.

    Reply
  10. Bonnie

     /  April 8, 2012

    Happy Easter Tammy! What a fun post! Thanks and have a wonderful day with your handsome crew.

    Reply
  11. Lisa H

     /  April 8, 2012

    Years ago you showed me your cactus with “the white stuff” and I was totally intrigued. I love how you use it to dye your eggs. Mom always used onion skins, and I think we tried beet juice, too.
    I have no problem with using an insect for color in foods, as long as it’s safe to eat. Nature has so many beautiful colors, so let’s use them!

    Reply
  12. Well said. This was ever so much fun! I too like to know what’s in my food! HAPPY EASTER!

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

    Reply
    • Happy Easter to you Linda. I got a beautiful box of beans yesterday. Thank you so so much.

      Reply
  13. Okay, I’m a little scared that Starbucks uses bug extract to dye its strawberry whatever calorie bomb concoctions, but on the other hand … Well, it’s at least natural. I didn’t know that artificial food colors are associated with things like ADHD, but then it doesn’t surprise me at all. I’d probably rather eat bugs than artificial crap. And the color turned out really fancy! :D

    How is your cactus doing?

    Reply
    • It’s actually healthy to get the parasite off of it. The photo of the cactus isn’t mind but one that I photographed in Peru.

      Reply
  14. Exquisite structure to this, Tammy: you had me guessing right up until the end! And I know so much more about cochineal now…

    Reply
    • It’s quite fun when a series of events happens such that I can write about it in a concise manner!

      Reply
  15. Hmmm, didn’t know anything about this! Thank you for sharing. I only visit Starbucks when I go to the “Big” city, which was this last week. And then it’s a coffee light Frappucino to go.

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    • It’s been a very big deal in food news but I have to confess, it sort of cracks me up.

      Reply
  16. Better than synthetic red dye. I agree. Blessings to you, Tammy…

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  17. Awesome eggs and I am definitely all for going back to natural dyes, medicine and most of all FOOD. The petrochemical industries need to stop finding newer and better ways to pollute us and make us dependent on their products.
    Removing those critters from your cacti and using them for dye is a win/win!

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  18. This is incredible! I would never have thought to try this. Awe.

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  19. A great post and I hadn’t heard about Starbucks and their dyes – but I’m loving the coloured eggs :)

    Reply
    • It was big food news about two weeks ago. My kids were pretty tickled with the story and that inspired the post.

      Reply
  20. Victoria Finlay’s fantastic book Color has an interesting chapter on cochineal. She’s also written a book about jewels which is almost as good. Have you read her Tammy?

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  21. I had encountered this issue before because I have a natural bodycare online store–and items using this are just not labeled vegan. But with lead in some commercial lipsticks, beetles don’t personally bother me a bit. So when I heard the teaser (“Do you know what’s in your “natural” pink strawberry drink…”) I knew just where they were going! It worked great for your eggs–though since we don’t have the beetles running around here, I’m probably stuck with the traditional beets for my eggs.

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  22. Cochineal has always been a favorite word and a favorite color, and I love your personal history with it. I also love the curiosity that inspired the egg dyeing. Thanks once again for a fun post!

    Reply
  23. Renee

     /  April 9, 2012

    I love the eggs! And I’m glad that the barista went with the full disclosure. I think the resulting discussion that it has brought about is a good thing.

    Reply
  24. I loved how you put this all together . . .to help us think about insects as food, or food coloring . .. and then shared your use of cochineal and dying the eggs. Your family is blessed to have you and hope your Easter wasblessed too!

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  25. Superb!!! I loved how they turned out.

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  26. I always find something new and interesting here! I am a huge Starbucks fan (although, not of the red sweet stuff – just the coffee), and find this so interesting that they are quietly finding natural substitutes for things like red dye. This doesn’t bother me one bit, although I can see how it would make some blanch when thinking of an insect as the source of what they are eating. It’s so amazing, though, all that is available through the natural world.

    Reply
    • It’s true. I’m sure there is a downside in that perhaps it doesn’t preserve as long but I’m really happy that we are considering natural dyes.

      Reply
  27. A fun, exciting and imaginative way to celebrate Easter. I always learn something new from you that simply blows my mind. I am a plant fan too but I’m more familiar with the tropical ones that I encountered growing up. Happy Easter my friend…

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  28. I didn’t know about the Starbucks fiasco. I was just talking to someone today about the annoying ‘artificial flavors’ or even ‘natural flavors’ phrases that are listed in ingredients…why can’t companies just put everything on the table? It’s one of the reasons why I aspire to put energies into my own food source as well as the community’s.

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  29. perfectly timed post, Tammy. And I love the color of the eggs.

    Reply
    • They are very interesting colors and I’m really surprised by the variations when I used the same exact process for each.

      Reply
  30. Tammy, my RSS is not working again. It is so good to read one of your posts. Without the notices, I forget to check to see if you have posted. But I did tonight and feel as though I’ve returned to a familiar neighbourhood!

    I will re-subscribe again. I will have to peek at what I’ve missed!

    Meanwhile, I will pass on the insect part of living. I’ll leave that to the brave and hardy.

    Reply
  31. I’m not a huge fan of Starbucks’ coffee (just tastes burnt to me), but don’t see anything wrong with using the bugs. I like they are moving away from synthetic dyes, but just wished they would have labeled from the beginning.

    I’m a vegetarian, but to think that I’ve never ingested a bug with all of the produce I consume is just dumb. It happens.

    PS: Your dyed eggs look awesome. And thanks for stopping by my blog.

    Reply
    • I’m with you and my kids and I spoke a lot about this. We do ingest insects – just usually not aware of it.

      Reply
  32. Was very interested to find out how they use it in Peru, seems like a very “everyday” item for them. Cool eggs! ;o)

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    • The whole thing came together very nicely; the Starbucks story, Peru, our cactus, the eggs.

      Reply
  33. Really interesting post & so cool that you dyed easter eggs with cochineal!

    Reply
  34. Very interesting post!
    Love the photo of the colorful lady.
    If I click on the photo of the cactus, it’s not rotated ;-)

    Reply
  35. Wow, how intriguing, Tammy…thnaks for this info and VERY belated but very happy Easter to you and yours!

    Reply
  36. Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… Here are some thoughtful words about cochineal, a red dye made from squashed insects. I’ll mention that, like Agrigirl, I’m no vegan. But I respect people’s choices about what to eat.

    Reply
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