Summary: Turns out œbug juice is really made of bugs and some people are hoping mad after making this discover. Instead of good old Red Dye #2, we have been downing jugs of extract of cochineal bugs.
When I was a kid I was fortunate to be allowed to spend my summers at camp in North Carolina. To this day I still think fondly of being in those beautiful mountains. I also remember building up an appetite and anticipating the mess hall bell. We would all scramble to the dining hall and hunker down to a meal, washed down with plenty of œbug juice serviced in grey metal pitchers. Ice cold œbug juice. We could get enough of the stuff.
Back then, the delicious red liquid got its color from Red Dye #2, which was banned in 1976 after a bunch of scientific types proved it was causing cancer in rats. What did we know? The stuff tasted great. Later, Red Dye #2 was replaced with Red Dye #40 or Red 40, and that stuff only caused hyperactivity in children, cured by mega-doses of Ritalin. But, I'm a pest control guy and I digress. The whole point of this article is that all those red dyes have been replaced with cochineal which comes from an insect native to South America and Mexico.
These tiny scale insects grow up on the prickly pear cacti producing a chemical called carminic acid. This acid helps keep predator insects at bay, but the deep purple color has attracted the interest of the native Mexicans for hundreds of years. In fact, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century they started exporting the dye back to Spain because the Mexican dyes were superior to any dyes they had. It was not until the 1800s that demand for the dye dropped off with the advent of new synthetic dyes. But, cochineal made a comeback when someone figured out that the dyes could be used in food production, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and shampoos.
Our grocery shelves are stocked with products that contain the cochineal dye. The big controversy has been that the cochineal scale has not been listed on product ingredient labels. Rather, labels have only been listing it as œother ingredients. Various vegetarian groups have been miffed saying that the introduction of insects into their food technicially makes the food an animal-related product. Some religious groups have also protested saying that the inclusion of insects goes against their dietary laws saying, œInsects are not kosher.
New laws are coming requiring manufacturers to tell the truth and confess to using buggy products. For now, just be aware that bottled juices, some candies, frozen pops, colored pastas and something called œnatural cosmetics may contain the cochineal scale.