Red coats, yogurt and lipstick: The insect behind the red hue found in some products you use

The cochineal scale insect was cultivated by the Indigenous Mesoamericans before it caught the eye of Spanish conquistadors.

By Laura Rice & Raul AlonzoJune 10, 2024 3:03 pm, ,

Chances are high that you’ve encountered prickly pear cactus in Texas, and if so, you may have seen white, cottony, fluffy tufts attached to those paddles.

But did you know those little fluffy mounds are what gave the red stripes on the original U.S. flags their color? Or made the British red coats red?

That’s because those mounds are actually cochineal scale insects, which Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Specialist Wizzie Brown says leave behind a bright red color when smushed. She says it’s a color that results from the carminic acid the insect produces as a sort of defense mechanism.

“This is an insect that has a crazy history, because people have used that as a way to create bright red, beautiful dye,” Brown said.

Katja Schulz, CC by 2.0, Attribution 2.0 generic

Smushed cochineal insects, revealing the bright red they're known for.

Thousands of years ago, Mesoamericans discovered the insect on prickly pear cactus paddles and began to cultivate and harvest them do use as dyes for textiles or painting houses.

“It takes about 70,000 dried insects to make 1 pound of dye,” Brown said.

The practice spread throughout ancient Mexico and Central America before catching the attention of the Spanish conquistadors who eventually landed in the New World. Enamored by the red the insects produced, the Spanish eventually brought it back to Europe where its demand soared.

An Indigenous Mesoamerican gathers cochineal scale insects from a cactus in this 18th century illustration. Alzate y Ramírez, José Antonio de, 1737-1799., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Everybody just went bonkers because they had never seen anything that had actually stayed that red before,” Brown said. “And it actually ended up becoming one of the most valuable exports from Mexico.”

Brown says the Europeans began using the insects for their own textile dyes – particularly in their royal robes. The British began using it for their red coat military uniforms, and the red on the original U.S. flags were likewise done with the dye.

Today, cochineal is still used for red or red-tinted foods and cosmetics.

Brown says to look for mentions of carminic acid, crimson lake, natural red 4, or E120 in ingredient lists to see if the hue stems from cochineal scale insects.

“So it could be anything from yogurts that are tinted pink to lipsticks of some sort, depending on what brands and what they’re utilizing,” Brown said.

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