Lately a valuable historical commodity has been much in the news. It's a commodity discovered in Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th c, desired by 17th c French kings and Caribbean pirates, worn into 18th c battles at Culloden and Lexington & Concord, and prized by 19th c courtesans. It's not gunpowder, or jewels, or gold or silver, but rather this:
"The coccinella cacti, a native of the warmer parts of America, is the famous cochineal animal, so highly valued in every part of the world for the incomparable beauty of its red colour, which it equally communicates to wool, silk, linen, and cotton."
- Encyclopeadia Britannica, 1776
Finally the development of synthetic dyes in the end of the 19th c pushed cochineal from the market, and it seemed destined to disappear. But towards the end of the 20th c, the health hazards of many synthetic dyes made cochineal once again commercially popular. As a natural alternative, it was used to color everything from lipstick to Twizzlers – and Starbucks strawberry frappuccinos.
"Bugs in your coffee!" made for great headlines, and apparently to the most rigorous vegans, even that tiny bit of crushed insect is too much for them. Starbucks has agreed to remove the dye from their drinks, bowing to the vegans and the bad publicity regarding bugs. But which, really, is worse: a tried-and-true natural red dye, or one that can cause cancer?
For the fascinating history of cochineal dyes, I heartily recommend A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield - one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books.
Update: For even MORE about cochineal, please see this excellent post by our blog-friend Patrick Baty (aka Colourman.)
* Why the double name? Here's the reason.