The Truth Behind Your Red Foods Is To Dye For

Written and illustrated by me. Originally published in Issue 04 of Selva Beat. Also online here.

cochineal web.jpg

In gas stations across the country, you can still find unnaturally pigmented products like Mountain Dew and Pixie Stix, but the appeal of these harsh hues is rapidly fading. Such edible abominations as these are vestiges of what I would deem the most extreme era of food coloring: the 90s. Prepubescent me sipped my way through such hits as Hi-C’s Ecto Cooler, in a shade meant to recreate the green goo of Slimer from Ghostbusters, and the disgustingly named Squeezits, which were sugary “fruit” drinks packaged in wasteful soft plastic bottles meant for chugging. These were the red hot days of kid food, before the average parent got wise to our cartoon-driven indoctrination courtesy of the packaged food industry. Advertisers haven’t quite given up, but when mandarin oranges are being pushed instead of SunnyD, someone’s doing something right.

While I was aware of the slow switch to more natural food coloring over my lifetime, I still wasn’t clear about the providence of these paler pigments. So as I recently sat drinking an infinitely more mature beverage choice — Campari and soda — I wondered to myself, “How do they get this color?" Naturally, I took out my phone and tapped my query out to the internet: "What makes Campari red?" Scanning, I found that there are three possibilities: carminic acid, plant based pigments, or artificial dyes. Then, as industrial food coloring is the pursuit of natural pigments via unnatural processes, I learned that each one has its own innate set of problems.