Minuscule: Not Vegan

The modern world is full of colors, every color you could ask for. We take this for granted. But it was not always so.

There were medieval artist would need to take out a loan just to afford a pot of royal blue. There were classical artisans would use so much gold leaf that if his patron ever fell on hard times he would scrape the canvas bare. There were Renaissance workshops who would have to use arsenic, or lead, or poison berries, just to achieve a particular hue. Throughout history there have been artists who spent their lives looking for a particular color – and never succeeded.

There was a particular shade of red which has always been very difficult to achieve. It is only found in nature in the shells and eggs of a female insect, a parasite which favors plants such as hawkweed, bladder campion, and smooth rupturewort. If you grind the insects into a paste, dry the paste in an oven, and mix it with the crushed shells of hen’s eggs, the result will be the pigment known as carmine. It is also known as cochineal, after the species of insect from which it is derived.

The Slavs in Poland, where the insect flourished, built a trading empire on its cultivation. When a new species of cochineal was discovered by the conquistadors in Mexico, its existence was guarded as one of the most important secrets of state, second only to the location of silver mines. Tens of thousands of people made their livelihood on the raising and preparing of these bugs. They remained the only source of the color crimson up until the middle nineteenth century.

A resurgence in demand for organic dyes has led to a renewed cultivation of the cochineal insect. It is most commonly found in organic foodstuffs and hippie clothing. It is the primary coloring agent in most red-fruit-leaning natural sports drinks and many zero-calorie vitamin waters. It has the minor distinction, due to its animal origins, of being the only common food additive that can succeed in making “water” beverages unsuitable for vegans.

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~ by davekov on 30 April 2011.

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