In the ancient world of the Aztecs, red dye was considered more valuable than gold. The dye is made from the dried female cochineal beetles. Beetles were collected by hundreds of subjects combing the desert in search of its source. A pound of water-soluble extract required about a million insects, just as back in the days of the Roman Empire, a pound of royal purple dye required four million mollusks.
After the arrival of Cortez in the 1500s, the Spaniards traded the dried remains of this insect as a colorant that dyed items a brilliant crimson. Cochineal red was a stronger dye than ever before – and a color that no one could duplicate. Europeans used it for fabrics and illumination in addition to cooking since it is natural dye.
In the years that followed, great painter Michelangelo used it in paintings. The British used it for redcoats and the Canadians for their Mounted Police coats. It is thought that the first U.S. flag made by Betsy Ross had cochineal red stripes.
With the advances in chemistry of dyes, nowadays synthetic dyes have replaced almost all the natural dyes which were very labor intensive and involved growing of particular plants like indigo plant in India and insects. Synthetic dyes have more shades and are cheaper.
Today, less expensive aniline dyes have replaced it, but it is used as a food coloring and is approved by the FDA as a natural colorant for food, drug and cosmetics. In fact, some brands of fruit juice use this red bug juice as a colorant.
The story of Cochineal red is even more fascinating. Europeans were never told of its insect origin. In reality, the insect looked so much like a seed, that the Spaniards traded it as grain.