Cochineal beetles are rejoicing this month as the Hansen sweet potato proves a viable alternative for producing the carmine color crushed beetles have long added to foods and cosmetics.

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Chr. Hansen, a bioscience company based in Denmark and founded in 1874, developed and commercialized the Hansen sweet potato™ Ipomoea batatas. “For the first time, we’ve created a whole new variety of vegetable to create the natural color our customers are asking for,” said Jakob Dalmose Rasmussen, vice president of commercial development at Chr. Hansen Natural Colors.

Vegetarians have long wanted an alternative to this common coloring, but the sweet potato took time to develop. “Over 10 years ago, we discovered a promising pigment in a root vegetable’s tuber, but the plant’s pigment content was on the low side. We took this plant and embarked on a process of selective breeding using traditional, non-GMO methods. The result is a plant-based, brilliant red that gives our customers a natural alternative to carmine and synthetic colors,” said Dalmose Rasmussen.

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Chr. Hansen launched its FruitMax® line of concentrates to provide a variety of red coloring options. “Strawberry red is a popular shade for food products — from cakes to confectionery to milkshakes,” noted Dalmose Rasmussen. “But until now it has been nearly impossible to make a fire-engine red color with no risk of off-taste without using carmine.”

Cochineal beetles live on cacti in Latin America. Their color comes from carminic acid, a substance which deters predation and makes up almost a quarter of the insects’ weight. The Incas and Aztecs both used the beetle for dye. Once Spaniards arrived in the New World, they quickly discovered that the cochineal beetle dye was far superior to anything they had in Europe, and dried bugs became the second most valuable export after silver. It’s still big business. In 2017, Peru exported more than $46 million dollars’ worth of carmine. Over the centuries, people have used the beetles to dye everything from cardinals’ robes to modern lipsticks.

As the Hansen sweet potato gains popularity, perhaps the cochineal beetles will be able to relax on their cacti. While some studies indicate that plants also feel pain, the legless tuber could neither run nor be reached for comment.

+ Chr. Hansen

Via Food Navigator

Image via Aunt Masako