The Secret Life of Cochineal: The Insect That Made Pink Frappuccinos and Lipsticks Possible

On April 8, 2023, during the Sotheby’s spring auction in Hong Kong, an opulent vermilion enamel spring vase crafted by Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty, adorned with lustrous pearls, ethereal clouds, and majestic dragon motifs, commenced its auction at a staggering price of HK$40 million. Eventually, the vase fetched a remarkable sum of HK$60.34 million, including commission. The exceptional worth of this artifact lies in its utilization of natural cochineal as a dye, imparting it with unparalleled value. In December 2022, PANTONE, the globally recognized authority on color, proclaimed “Viva Magenta” as the coveted color of the year for 2023. Little did anyone anticipate that this vibrant hue owes its origins to cochineal dye!

Cochineal occupies a place on the color spectrum between crimson and roseate. Its delicate and soothing essence evokes both serenity and upliftment, while symbolizing optimism and positivity. Who could have fathomed that cochineal not only emerged as a sought-after color this year, steeped in extravagance, but also found its way into the formulations of premier lipsticks by esteemed international brands? So, what exactly is this enigmatic insect known as cochineal, and what makes it so highly regarded by numerous brands, tantamount to the value of gold?

A Legal Quandary: Divergence, Righteousness, and Rouge

Bakya, a 30-year-old native of Boston, USA, possesses an ardent fondness for coffee. Its bittersweet flavor bestows upon her an indescribable elation.

Following her graduation from college, Bakya secured employment at Starbucks. Within a few short years, she ascended to donning the apron of a rich coffee hue.

Starbucks clerks are adorned in aprons of green, black, and coffee tones. Typically, ordinary shop assistants don the green aprons, while the black aprons symbolize their completion of comprehensive education and training, signifying their proficiency in customer service and coffee craftsmanship.

Yet, the pinnacle of status is epitomized by the brown apron. Only those coffee ambassadors who emerge victorious in Starbucks’ annual competition have the honor of wearing this highest-ranking apron.

On April 8, 2012, while engrossed in her duties, Bakya proudly sported a brown apron when a disgruntled customer named Famya voiced her discontent: “You have infused cochineal pigment into the strawberry frappuccino, tinging it with a rosy hue. Consequently, we are inadvertently ingesting insects!” At that time, the pink frappuccino stood as a highly popular and coveted item.

Promptly, Bakya embarked on an explanation: “Cochineal is a natural pigment that poses no harm to the human body. How can we claim to be consuming insects? Our intention is to curtail the reliance on synthetic pigments.” However, Famya obstinately persisted, asserting that utilizing “bug remnants” in the production process and incorporating carmine into beverages amounted to an abuse of food additives.

Consequently, Famya took Starbucks to court. Being a vegetarian herself, she rallied a group of non-vegetarians to join her protest. They contended that the inclusion of cochineal in drinks, coffee, or milk rendered them non-vegetarian.

Undoubtedly, cochineal serves as a precious economic resource, belonging to the order Homoptera. Within the mature cochineal insect resides a copious quantity of fuchsia acid. This magenta-hued acid constitutes an ideal natural dye, boasting resistance to oxidation and light-induced decomposition. It stands as a non-toxic, invaluable, and naturally derived substance, having found extensive employment in the realms of food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and various other industries. Despite cochineal’s origin in the cochineal insect, the consumption of a beverage infused with this dye does not equate to consuming insects.

However, despite Bakya’s arguments, an impasse persisted. Yet, at this very juncture, an unexpected turn of events further complicated matters, rendering her explanations even more arduous.

On that fateful day, a middle-aged gentleman named Most, having consumed a glass of pink frappuccino, suddenly succumbed to an asthma attack while seated. Subsequent medical examination revealed an allergic reaction to cochineal. Reports suggested that certain components of cochineal, derived from animal blood, could trigger allergic responses in select asthma patients. Although such cases were rare, Most found himself in the midst of this unfortunate circumstance.

Moreover, Starbucks, due to an oversight, failed to include a cautionary statement in the product instructions, advising individuals with allergies to exercise caution. Consequently, Bakya found herself in an increasingly precarious situation. Driven to desperation, she sought assistance from Professor Lepore, an esteemed expert in entomology, in the hope of resolving the predicament.

Taking thematter seriously, Professor Lepore conducted extensive research and analysis on cochineal and its potential effects on human health. He discovered that cochineal, while generally safe for consumption, can indeed cause allergic reactions in a small percentage of the population, particularly those with pre-existing allergies or asthma.

Armed with this knowledge, Bakya and Professor Lepore presented their findings to the court, emphasizing the following points:

1. Cochineal is a natural and widely used coloring agent derived from insects, primarily the female cochineal insect.
2. The cochineal pigment, carmine, is a common ingredient in various food and cosmetic products, including beverages, baked goods, yogurts, ice creams, and lipsticks.
3. While cochineal is generally safe for consumption, a small percentage of individuals may experience allergic reactions or asthma attacks due to specific components in cochineal.
4. Companies are responsible for providing accurate labeling and information about potential allergens in their products. Starbucks, in this case, failed to include a warning for individuals with allergies to cochineal.
5. The inclusion of cochineal in Starbucks’ strawberry frappuccino does not render the drink non-vegetarian, as cochineal is an insect-derived coloring agent and not a part of the actual beverage.

Based on these arguments and the evidence presented, the court reached a verdict. Starbucks was found liable for negligence in failing to provide adequate warnings about potential allergens, leading to Most’s allergic reaction and subsequent asthma attack. The court ordered Starbucks to update their product labels and provide appropriate warnings to prevent similar incidents in the future. However, the court did not find Starbucks guilty of falsely advertising the beverage as vegetarian, as cochineal is not considered a non-vegetarian ingredient.

This case sparked a broader discussion about the use of cochineal and other natural colorants in food and beverages. In response, Starbucks and other companies began exploring alternative natural colorants to cater to customers with allergies or those who preferred to avoid cochineal. Consequently, Starbucks reformulated its strawberry frappuccino using a different natural colorant that did not pose allergy risks, ensuring the safety and satisfaction of a wider customer base.

The case also prompted increased awareness and transparency regarding the use of natural colorants in the food and beverage industry. Companies now take additional precautions to label their products accurately, providing information about potential allergens to protect consumers.

The journey of cochineal from an opulent dye in historical artifacts to a contentious ingredient in a popular beverage exemplifies the multifaceted nature of its significance. Today, cochineal continues to be utilized in various industries, but with a heightened emphasis on transparency, safety, and catering to diverse consumer needs.
   According to records, the appearance of lipstick originated from the ancient memories of human beings’ lips being stained with blood when they first ate fresh meat. According to unearthed cultural relics, the world’s first lipstick was discovered in the Sumerian city of Ur. The lip gloss made of red rock by the Queen of Ur during the Sumerian period is recognized as the earliest prototype of lipstick.
   Led by the famous Cleopatra of ancient Egypt, she was very keen on the production and use of lipstick. She also led the national fashion trend of using lipstick, making lipstick the favorite of ladies. After many wealthy women in ancient Egypt died, they also used lip gloss to smear on their graves to express their love for lipstick.
   In such an environment, the ancient Egyptian people even explored all kinds of weird and weird colors: blue-green, black, orange… weird and weird, everything you want.
   However, the level of productivity development at that time was backward, and the materials for making lipstick were very limited. Many heavy metal raw materials used to make lipstick were harmful to the human body, and lipstick poisoning incidents occurred from time to time. So, Cleopatra, who loved lipstick very much, began to look for a safe and non-toxic lipstick formula.
   In order to find the right red color, she searched for a red bug called cochineal from Persia and Mesopotamia. She used the eggs and fat of female cochineal beetles to create a magenta color. Later, this color gradually became the most classic color of lipstick and became extremely popular.
   In the mid-18th century, the beauty-loving French also successfully established cochineal breeding farms and introduced local industry. Although the market demand for the pigment cochineal is very considerable, because the output is far lower than the market demand, the price has remained high. A pound of cochineal can be sold for more than a thousand US dollars, which is worth as much as gold.
   On April 8, 2023, Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring auction special “Chinese Art Treasures” was held. The special auction presented more than 250 treasures in multiple categories such as porcelain, bronzes, and jade. The cover item of the special sale was a jade vase with red enamel and pearls, clouds and dragons, made during the Yongzheng period of the Qing Dynasty. The bidding started at HK$40 million, and was hammered down at HK$50 million. The final price, including commission, was HK$60.34 million.
   According to records in the work archives of the Manufacturing Office, this vase was specially painted by a Qing palace craftsman in 1732 in accordance with the decree of Emperor Yongzheng. At that time, the underglaze red bottle in Jingdezhen kiln was blurred like a fingerprint. Under the criticism and correction of the Holy Emperor, the palace craftsmen worked tirelessly to innovate and copied it with enamel red color, which finally made the dragon look happy.
   This vase is exquisitely painted and signed with a blue material on the bottom, which proves that it was made by the Enamel Works Office of the Qing Palace Manufacturing Office in the Forbidden City in Beijing. It is an unmistakable enamel-colored porcelain and witnesses the pinnacle of craftsmanship in the Yongzheng period.
   What is incredible is that the reason why this bottle is so valuable is that it uses natural cochineal as a dye when coloring it. Such high-quality products are extremely rare among imperial porcelains of the Qing Dynasty. They are painted with carmine red clouds and dragons. At first glance, they look novel and unique. The base of the square frame is marked with overglaze blue material, which means that this is enamel-colored porcelain. The decorations were painted and fired in Beijing. Inside the Forbidden City.
   In December 2022, PANTONE, the world’s authoritative color organization, announced the popular color of the year for 2023. No one would have thought that this hue also comes from cochineal dye.
   The popular color this year is vibrant magenta. If Yongzheng himself, a “heavy cochineal lover”, was awakened, he would also sigh: “Isn’t this my favorite cochineal?” Nowadays, cochineal has become a recognized name in the
   world One of the most precious natural dyes, the history of cochineal being used in cosmetic products can be traced back hundreds of years. At that time, people did not have the technology to chemically synthesize red dyes, so cochineal is a very important red dye.
  There are countless brands using cochineal all over the world. CL radish lipstick is an American brand. Because it is blended with cochineal red, it is moisturizing without drying out and has great durability. The ingredient list of Estee Lauder’s top lipstick also states that it contains a small amount of cochineal. Although it is more expensive, its effectiveness is recognized. Yves Saint Laurent also contains a small amount of cochineal, which makes it very delicate and silky to use. Chanel’s lipstick also contains cochineal, which gives it a cool and high-end appearance after use, and the color is elegant and atmospheric, making it suitable for various occasions.
  Make the best use of everything, and beauty turns into dye when “angry”
   Cochineal is a special kind of bug. To be precise, they “sacrifice” themselves for beauty. They are known for their unique “snail-dwelling habit” and they only like to live on prickly cacti. In their view, they are weak and harmless, and only by living on these cacti can they feel safe and keep predators away from them.
   However, the ideal is very full and the reality is very skinny. They have such a wonderful imagination of the laws of the biological chain in nature. Although many predators are wary of these prickly cacti and decide to let them go, some carnivorous insects do not follow martial ethics and specially climb up the cactus and kill them. Cochineal is served as a dessert.
   They say that when God closes a door, he will open another window for you. In order to avoid insect predators, cochineal insects successfully evolved their own blood into “carminic acid”. This “acid” disgusts carnivorous insects and reduces their appetite, but it brings benefits to humans.
   Perhaps even the cochineal beetle did not realize that carminic acid is a natural, pollution-free, high-quality dye. Cochineal insects live in cacti all their lives. After their death, their corpses can be processed to squeeze out a large amount of dark red liquid, which is the color of lipstick.
   This ingredient does not contain any added chemicals, so the lipstick made from cochineal is very safe. Carmine is currently the only natural pigment that can be used not only in food, but also in medicines and cosmetics.
   Because cochineal beetles are very difficult to cultivate and their numbers are very rare, they are very expensive. However, in recent years, some people have discovered that the higher the price of lipstick on the market, the higher the content of cochineal insects. In order to make more profits, some unscrupulous merchants will even increase the cochineal content in lipstick to extremely high levels, exceeding the standard limit, thus posing a threat to the health of consumers.
   During the growth, reproduction, and survival of cochineal insects, they will naturally bring along various bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. Under a microscope, you can see many bacteria grabbing the claws and epidermis of cochineal insects. If the lipstick contains too many cochineal insects, it means that the lipstick will contain more bacteria and viruses, which will pose a potential threat to human health. Therefore, the amount of cochineal must not exceed the standard.
   According to the British Herbal Journal, cochineal can treat depression and hallucinations. According to modern medical research, cochineal pigment can inhibit DNA damage caused by carcinogens, and can also prevent and treat viral diseases and AIDS, so it is widely used in the pharmaceutical field. Among all insects, cochineal has always been an excellent “condiment” for humans. It can be eaten and used, making men intoxicated and women unable to put it down. It can even cure cancer.
   The value of cochineal is always beyond people’s imagination. The magenta acid in the body of an adult cochineal worm accounts for about 20% of the body weight, which is equivalent to the natural source of magenta acid.
  Unlike synthetic pigments, cochineal’s magenta acid is natural, and its main components are protein and sugar.

   Nowadays, most of the artificial pigments contain carcinogens. Swallowing a small amount may not have much impact, but long-term consumption will definitely have an impact on health. Scientists say that the red pigment of cochineal can effectively prevent genetic damage caused by cancer. Such an excellent raw material is indeed valuable and rare.
   So, how is such a bug cultivated? The first method is to place cochineal larvae in cactus gathering places in the wild and grow in a natural environment. However, this method is greatly affected by the natural climate, and a natural disaster may cause the growers to lose their money.
   Another method is indoor cultivation, which involves placing cactus leaves indoors and placing cochineal larvae on the surface. Through scientific means, variable factors such as temperature, humidity, and light can be effectively controlled to achieve optimal yields.
   It takes about 3 months for cochineal insects to grow from larvae to adults. In order to facilitate transportation, Mexican locals usually remove the adults and place them in a well-lit place to dry. This can not only reduce the ineffective water in the insect’s body, but also precipitate the pigment in it.
   Of course, although cochineal is a natural raw material, it needs to go through a series of processing and extraction processes during the preparation process. Different countries have different standards and regulations for the extraction methods and content limits of cochineal.
   According to the “Inspection Specifications for Lipsticks, Oral Liquids and Oral Sprays” promulgated by the China Cosmetics Industry Association, the content of cochineal bugs must not exceed 1.5%. In countries and regions such as the European Union and the United States, the upper limits of cochineal content in lipstick are 0.1% and 0.15% respectively, which are relatively low.
   From a price point of view, cochineal is a “luxury product”. According to 2019 statistics, the price of artificially cultured cochineal in the international market has reached 4,800 yuan per kilogram, equivalent to 4.8 yuan per gram. Many people compare cochineal to gold. Gold costs 500 yuan per gram, while cochineal is only 4.8 yuan per gram. There seems to be no comparison. However, as a “renewable resource”, cochineal can collect 3 to 3 insects per year. 5 times, and the price of 4.8 yuan per gram that year was only the price of dried cochineal raw materials. After simple heat treatment, drying and processing to extract pigments, the net profit will be doubled directly.
   Artificial cultivation of cochineal insects is undoubtedly a new wealth-making project. There are mature project experiences abroad. From 600 to 1,000 cactus leaves, 140,000 female insects can be harvested, and these female insects can contribute one kilogram of dye. In a cactus estate in Mexico, 100,000 cactus plants are planted, and the annual income can exceed one million yuan.
   Theoretically, moderate use of cochineal will not cause harm to the human body, but if the content of cochineal in lipstick is too high, it will be counterproductive. In fact, as long as you choose a regular brand, conduct a skin test before purchasing, pay attention to product ingredient labels, and store it correctly, you can effectively ensure the safety of lipstick. At the same time, relevant departments should strengthen supervision over products containing excessive amounts to ensure the health and safety of consumers.
   Along the way, cochineal has made a huge contribution to pigments, and its gold price demonstrates people’s passion for color. Its “dedication” to lipstick creates a bright color that women love, and at the same time makes the lipstick that is eaten in the mouth every day healthier and safer.
   This seemingly inconspicuous little bug makes beauty no longer a charming but dangerous trick. The bright and charming red can also become a good medicine for curing diseases, making red more durable and lasting. In the years full of uncertainty, this touch of red is still soft, calm, and exciting at the same time. It encourages everyone to face the future with optimism.
  Facing the sea, spring flowers are blooming, and the rouge red genuine model is coming…

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