Outrage in France over use of popular cochineal food dye made from crushed insects

French families have been horrified to learn that the red food dye used in popular treats such as children’s ice lollies is often made from crushed insects.

Foodwatch, a consumer rights group, pointed out that a widely used red food colouring, carmine, is made from ground-up bugs, as part of a campaign for labels to provide fuller information about ingredients.

The insects used are called cochineal. Native to tropical and subtropical parts of South, Central and North America, they live on cacti.

Connoisseurs have long known the colouring comes from squashed bugs, but the news has come as a shock to many French consumers. 

“The bright red food colouring, E120, is made from crushed cochineal insects, which are listed as an ingredient on labels, but very few people realise that they are tiny insects,” said Camille Dorioz, a Foodwatch campaigns officer.

The group is lobbying the French government to force manufacturers to list ingredients as “products of animal origin” where appropriate.

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“It never occurs to most people that there’s an insect-based additive in an ice lolly,” Mr Dorioz said. “It’s a controversial product because of the risk of triggering an allergic reaction. There are alternatives to obtain a red colour, for example beetroot.”

A cochineal colony, seen here on a prickly pearCredit:
blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo

Paul Leblanc, 35, was visibly shocked when told that the ice lollies he was buying for his seven-year-old son at a Paris supermarket contained a dye made from crushed insects.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined that ice cream was made with bugs, even if it’s only in minute quantities. To be honest, I’m now wondering if I should be giving this to my son. It might be harmless but the idea makes me shudder. The label should really be clearer.”

Cochineal is also used in yoghurts, soft drinks, medicines, cupcakes, spices, cured meats, doughnuts and lipsticks.

An article about the Foodwatch campaign in Le Parisien newspaper provoked a lively discussion at a popular Paris café.

“I’ll never touch any red foods ever again, whether they’re ice cream or anything else,” said Mélanie, 43.

But another customer pointed out that eating insects was gradually gaining favour as a cheap and sustainable source of protein.

“The real problem isn’t the presence of insects, it’s the prevalence of processed foods,” said Marcel, 33. “If you really want to know what’s in your ice-cream, get an ice-cream maker and make it yourself.” 

A headline in the Lyon-based newspaper Le Progrès read: “Insects in ice cream: duped by labelling”.  Some Twitter users, however, defended the use of cochineal.

“It’s been around for decades,” one wrote. “We’ve all eaten it and it hasn’t done us any harm.” Farmed mainly in Peru, millions of the insects are harvested every year to produce colourings.

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