A Gift of Color


Note the white flecks on the blooming nopal

Blue jacaranda petals shower the ground and nopal pads 


I rubbed my fingers across the flakey white stuff on the side of a nopal cactus in our jardin, intending to catch for closer examination a little of what appeared to be white powder. I had seen something like this in my North Carolina vegetable garden—little white scaly mealybugs on my tomatoes. Glancing down at my hand, It startled me to see bright red across my fingertips.

Did I cut myself?

Ahhh, this must be the way some Native American discovered cochineal dyes.

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500s, they found the Aztecs  producing vibrant red cochineal-dyed fabrics—far brighter than anything available in Europe. Further, these dyes retained their color for a very long time. The little creature responsible is the cochineal, Dactylopius coccus, a scaled insect native throughout sub-tropical Mexico, Central America and sub-tropical South America. The parasitic cochineal colonies attach themselves more or less permanently to nopal plants and spend their lives there sucking nutrients. Native Mexicans collected the bodies and eggs of the cochineal by hand using deer tail brushes, then crushed and dried the tiny bugs. It takes 80,000 to 100,000 of these insects to make a kilogram of cochineal dye.


“Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail”

by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777) (Wikipedia, Cochineal)

Kermes, the nearest comparable red dye available in 1500s Europe, is also derived from an insect. However, it was very expensive—and a weaker dye. Soon, dried cochineal from the New World became a major trade good—second only to gold in desirability.

Much of the color vibrancy that exploded among Renaissance painters may be attributed to the introduction of cochineal reds to their palettes.

Amazingly, the Spanish were able to guard the secret of the cochineal dyes for two-hundred-fifty years. Finally, a French naturalist smuggled nopal infested with the scaly insects out of Mexico.

Today, indigenous southern Mexicans still practice cochineal gathering and dyeing as a folk art.

So, whenever you see carmine, cochineal extract, or natural Red No. 4 listed as an ingredient in food or cosmetics, you will know the product is made from powdered bugs.

Until 2009, cochineal fell under the umbrella term “natural color” on ingredient lists. However, cochineal provokes allergic reactions in some people. Now, the US Food and Drug Administration requires carmine and cochineal extract to be explicitly identified in ingredient lists.

Except for its role as an occasional allergen, cochineal has no known health risks.

Synthetic red dyes such as Red No. 2 and Red No. 40 carry far greater health risks. They are derived from either coal or petroleum byproducts and have been proven carcinogenic.

Perhaps it’s time to return to natural colors. Compared with synthetic dyes, powdered bugs seem safe and appetizing.