Would you rather eat something made from petroleum or bugs? It's not a dare but the crux of a change in the food industry. Pressure on companies to abandon artificial dyes is expected to result in increased use of natural food colors—the most popular of which is cochineal, a dye made from insects that are ground up and added to foods to make them rosier.
The British government has recommended that food manufacturers stop using additives like Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5 (commonly called "nasties" in the U.K.) by the start of 2009. Some American activists, citing studies linking eight artificial dyes to hyperactivity in children, want the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take a similar stance.
A move away from artificial food coloring would spur demand for a red dye made from the cochineal beetle. Cochineal, often known as carmine, has already made its way into hundreds of U.S. products, including yogurt, waffles, and lipstick.
Demand in Peru alone for the cochineal dye has doubled in the past six years, from 1,000 tons of dry cochineal in 2002 to 2,000 tons now, according to the Cochineal Working Group, a network of farmers and researchers. The dye is made by scraping female bugs and their eggs off cactus leaves and grinding them into a powder. The main producers are in Peru, Chile, and the Canary Islands.
"Production could be more if necessary," says Liberato Portillo, coordinator of the Cochineal Working Group, a section of the International Technical Cooperation Network on Cactus, which provides information and research on cacti. As demand has increased, Ethiopia and China have started cultivating the insects as well, Portillo says.
Making carmine the main source for natural orange, red, and blue tints might be easier said than done, says Al Baroudi, president of Food Safety Institute International, a consulting group based in Henderson, Nev. "People who are farming it now don't have a remote idea of what the demand will be" if large international manufacturers start placing huge orders for the dye to keep their foods' vibrant colors—and their customers.
Baroudi says the price of carmine would no doubt go up with demand. The cost of carmine is generally about four times that of coal- and petroleum-based synthetic dyes—between $50 and $80 per kilogram for carmine, compared with $10 to $20 for synthetics. Jeff Greaves, president of Food Ingredient Solutions in Teterboro, N.J., says that with carmine, "you typically have to spend 10 to 20 times as much to get the same color intensity" as you would using artificial colors.
Although the FDA has rebuffed calls for it to ban artificial colorings, experts expect many food companies to shift on their own to satisfy international markets. Global Industry Analysts reported in late 2007 that "outbreaks of food scares and heightened awareness of the health benefits of organically produced ingredients are thought to be behind the dramatic turn from unhealthy ingredients."
Greaves says that "there is definitely a trend towards natural color.... Carmine sales are up 20 percent this year already." Greaves's company processes and distributes both artificial and natural food colors for sale in North America and Europe. It is one of the world's biggest carmine suppliers, selling about 75 tons of the dye per year.
"There's still a cultural 'icky' thing about carmine," Greaves says. But drastic market change is not unprecedented. In the mid-1970s, "Red [Dye] No. 2 got removed overnight, and what replaced it was carmine," he adds. Use of Red No. 40 also increased after the FDA banned Red No. 2.
Companies will "work real hard to formulate new colors for export," says John Rushing, an expert on food science and business who teaches at North Carolina State University. Red cabbage is another source for a natural dye, but it's much more expensive than carmine, Rushing says.
Cochineal is not without controversy, and not just because making food coloring from insects may be unappetizing. For one thing, cochineal is an allergen. "Allergies to carmine are less common than to artificial food coloring, but they can be severe," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington health advocacy group that supports a ban on artificial food dyes. "If carmine is used, it should absolutely be indicated on the food label as a potential allergen."
Carmine is also an animal-based dye, which doesn't sit well with vegans and vegetarians. Erik Marcus of Vegan.com says foods with carmine "are always nonvegan."
There is already a small effort to avoid carmine. When Nestlé, the Swiss food manufacturing giant, switched its Smarties candies from artificial reds to carmine in 2004, it was blasted by vegetarian groups for the insect content. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lists candies with no carmine (or other animal-based substances) on its website, and a few cosmetics companies tout themselves as "carmine free."