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Carmine Cochineal: A Large Scale Issue

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cochineal beetles.jpgThe red dye carmine, derived from female cochineal beetles, is one of many "secret ingredients" that make being vegetarian difficult.

For years, carmine was listed on ingredient lists as "artificial coloring." Finally, the Center for Science In the Public Interest (CSPI) asked the US Food and Drug Association (FDA) to require that all products containing cochineal state on the label that it is insect-based and may cause allergic reactions or anaphylactic shock. Of course, the food industries were opposed to printing that on their products. Eventually, the FDA decided to oblige the companies to include the word "carmine" on the label -- but didn't mention the health or vegetarian aspects of the pigment. Restaurants are not required to admit to using the dye unless a customer asks.

Recently, a lady from South Carolina began a petition on Change.org asking Starbucks Coffee to quit using carmine in their products. After the appeal amassed over 6,000 names, Starbucks agreed to switch to the vegan dye lycopene, derived from tomatoes.

To produce carmine, thousands of cochineal beetles are taken to factories, where they are dried by boiling, baking, or exposure to steam or sunlight. 70,000 beetles are killed to make one pound of carmine. The fertilized eggs and female abdomens are then ground up and cooked, to produce more color.

cochineal nat am.jpgSeveral species of scale beetle yield carmine. Historically, the dye was harvested in both the Old World and the New. Aztecs and Incas harvested cochineal beetles, which are found on cacti in Central and South America. To survive in the deserts, the insects secrete a white wax which serves as a sunblock. The Native Americans sometimes used the creatures as currency, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma II levied a tax to be paid in barrels of beetles.

Mediterranean ancients used similar kermes beetles, which lived on red oaks. In fact, the word "crimson" derives from the kermes insects. Jars of them have been found in Neolithic burial sites. In the Middle Ages, silk dyed with kermes was extremely popular among the upper classes. As the dried eggs looked like particles of wheat or sand, they were known as grain, hence the expressions "dyed in the grain" and "full grain."

However, after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, carmine cochineal replaced carmine kermes, which was weaker and more expensive. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carmine remained in use. According to an article, Beneficial Scale?, in the South Florida Cactus and Succulent Society's magazine, the American colonists were angered by the steep prices of cochineal as well as tea.

The most common artificial crimson dye is Red #40, also called FD & C Red 40 or Allura Red AC, which is derived from petroleum. After the scarlet dye Amaranth, a carcinogen, was banned 1970s, Red #40 replaced it. More currently, Red #3 was proven to cause cancer in rats. Although the FDA has not banned it, its use is decreasing. However, as an unnatural colorant, Red 40 also has potential negative effects, including cancer, allergies, asthma, migraines and other health problems.

Some vegetarians who argue against carmine are deemed advocates of chemical colorants. However, many natural ruby dyes, found in beets, annattos, tomatoes, or paprika, are vegan. Hopefully, many companies will follow Starbucks in switching from cochineal to a healthy alternative.
Becoming a vegetarian not only benefits the animals, it also helps the planet. By easily altering your diet, you can save many resources, including land, food, water and energy.

Energy One third of all fossil fuels produced in the US are used to raise livestock to be eaten. Eighty percent of all agricultural land is used by the meat or dairy industries. All of the little stages needed to convey meat to your home add up into one huge problem. Turning off lights or unplugging appliances when they are not needed are very minor contributions when compared to the immense environmental profit created by a transition to vegetarianism. Consider the steps needed to produce a packaged hot dog or hamburger or chicken nuggets:

1. Remember the 80 percent of all farming land used by the meat companies? They use a lot of the land to grow corn, soybeans and grain to be used as feed. These crops must be watered, sprayed with pesticides and nurtured just as food for human consumption would be. This uses a lot of energy in itself. While this process is not eliminated by vegetarianism, many of the other steps could be.

2. When you see 18-wheelers driving down the highway, don't they strike you as being very bad for the environment? They're giving off clouds of pollution, and they get very bad mileage or they use more gas per mile than an energy-efficient car would use. Those trucks carry the grain to the feed mill. The feed mill isn't environmentally-friendly, either. It uses a lot of electricity to power it. Although being a vegetarian isn't perfect, at this point the food would be ready to go to the grocery store. But there's still a long process before the final product arrives at the supermarket.

3. The feed is loaded back into the 18-wheelers and driven to the factory farms, where animals are mass-produced. The animals have to be raised on the factory farms, which wastes a lot of energy. Think about it - they have to be fed, watered, and given injections of hormones and antibiotics to prevent the diseases which spread quickly in such unsanitary conditions, and many other things that most people don't realize are necessary.

4. Once the animals are grown, they are loaded onto specially-equipped 18-wheelers and trucked to the slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse, which is yet another inefficient industrial building, takes huge amounts of energy to run.

5. After they have been killed, the animals are often again transported and delivered to packaging factories, which must be powered to pack the bags of processed food that you buy in a grocery store.

6. The packaged food is driven to a grocery store, where it must be refrigerated to prevent its spoiling. You buy it and take it home, where it must again be kept cool.

Greenhouse Gases If every American substituted vegetarian food for a meal of chicken once a week, the carbon dioxide reduction would be equal to taking over half a million cars off the road, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization trying to preserve natural resources. Eating one pound of meat is the carbon dioxide equivalent of driving an SUV 40 miles in the amount of energy expended to produce the final product.

Wasted Food Eating meat wastes more grain than dining on vegetarian foods, which do not have to be harvested to feed animals before they finally become human food. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of animal meat, according to John Robbins' Diet for a New America. That's a ratio of 16 to 1. If every pasture used to graze livestock or grow cattle feed was planted with soybeans for human consumption, no one in the world would be starving.

Pollutants The runoff from factory farms producing meat pollutes public water more than all other industrial sources combined. In towns around Bellingham, in Washington state, the fields are sprayed with contaminated, brown water from chicken plants. We went to a town, Lynden, which had a Dutch heritage and featured windmills and half-timbered buildings. It would have been quaint, except that it smelled horribly like the dirty water being used to irrigate the nearby fields. Because the corn fields were also being watered with the polluted water, that Halloween we could not go to any corn mazes.

Scenic Drives The French and Swiss Alps have been turned into huge cow pastures. The smell in some towns was so bad that we could not walk around in them. We tried to hike up to a glacier located in open space in France, but had to jump fences and avoid the fields with grazing cows in them. In England, it is sheep and not cows which roam everywhere. Although the sheep are not as bad as cattle, they still make traveling less enjoyable. When driving through the Midwestern US, we often pass stockyards where cows are packed into small, muddy enclosures.

Benefits of Vegetarianism Although being a vegetarian sounds strange and difficult, it is one of the very best things you could do for the environment. People turn off the air conditioning or the TV when they leave a room and use canvas grocery bags instead of paper or plastic ones, but, although this helps the environment some, eating meat wastes a lot more energy.

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