Martin Kaste, NPR News
The insect whole, left, and crushed to reveal the source of the red dye, compared in size to a U.S. nickel.
Amy Radil for NPR News
Emilio Manzilia and his son Wilbert pick through brush to harvest cochineals off the surface of the prickly pear cactus.
Amy Radil for NPR News
NPR's Martin Kaste with examples of Peruvian textiles colored with dye from the cochineal.
The guts of an insect called the cochineal contain a traditional source of bright red dye — a dye which has now become a booming industry because of a growing preference for juices and yogurts that contain "natural" colorings.
NPR's Martin Kaste recently traveled to the highlands of Peru to meet some farmers who make a meager living harvesting the insect, and the buyers and processors who convert the bugs into an edible dye called carmine that end up in scores of products, from food to cosmetics.
The cochineals are about the size of peppercorns — or ticks — and they live on the surface of prickly pear cactus pads. They're a dusty grey color, until they're squashed — and then their plump abdomens burst with rich, red liquid.
"People used to say that the insects sucked the blood of human beings," says Isabel Chaupis, a local woman who now buys and sells the bug. But she says once the demand for cochineal started in the 1990s, she says valley residents forgot all about that superstition, and began harvesting the insects in earnest.
Even though a full pound of cochineal sells for just $1.30, harvesting the bug earns enough money to feed and clothe a whole family in the impoverished highlands region of Peru. An estimated 40,000 Peruvian families depend on harvesting the bugs — which belong to a class of scale insects — to make a living.
In the late 1990s, a pound of the insects went for as much as $10, and city dwellers were poaching the insect on private property. Today, oversupply has pushed down prices.
Felimon Caniwa Wamani tells Kaste he's a little worried that consumers in America and other nations of the "First World" will be put off by carmine once they realize the dye come from the guts of a bug. "It's natural, nothing will happen to you, be calm," he says into Kaste's microphone — trying to soothe the queasy American consumers he imagines listening on the other end.
Peru's cochineal-processing industry is growing more than 15 percent a year, but is similarly publicity-shy. Luis Carlos Vega is director of Globe Natural, a company that processes cochineals in Lima. He admits some people he's met are surprised to know the source of the red color in their food and cosmetics.
"Let's say, a girlfriend would say, 'Oh, am I coloring my face with a bug?' And I would explain, 'You've been doing this for years, and maybe your mom, too.' Color has to come from somewhere," he tells Kaste. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tested and approved cochineals as a food coloring.
Vega says companies that make other kinds of red coloring have been trying to smear the cochineal's reputation by stirring up concern among consumers with dietary restrictions. "But Vega says the proteins can be removed from the purified dye — something he says should reassure vegetarians, or anyone who doesn't like the idea of eating bits of insects," Kaste says.