Cochineal

This red really is made of blood.

Used in the Americas for dyeing textiles as early as 700 B.C, it was later the treasure of the Incas and the Aztecs. After the invasion of 1492, it became a highly important export for the Spanish, who guarded its secret crop jealously and became the third greatest traded product from the ‘New World’ (after gold and silver). Even today the only crop in Latin America that can compete with cochineal in price is cocaine.

One of the reddest dyes that the natural world has ever produced, cochineal is a parasitic scale insect that lives on the prickly-pear cacti. The female insects are brushed from the plant, killed in ovens then left to dry in the sun. They are then boiled to extract the colour. Around 14,000 of the insects are needed to make just a hundred grams of carmine pigment!

For centuries, kings and popes wore crimson robes dyed with cochineal and it was used as a cosmetic to colour lips and cheeks of the wealthy. Used as a pigment from the 17th Century, this deep crimson colour was invaluable to painters but is now rarely used by artists because it fades in sunlight.

After synthetic dyes were invented in the late 19th century, cochineal production almost vanished. However in recent times, due to health fears over arti cial food additives, a renewed interest has lead to a return in its popularity and it is now used in sweets, fruit juices, cosmetics and liquors like Campari.