‘In some village in La Mancha, whose name I do not care to recall, there dwelt not so long ago a gentleman of the type wont to keep an unused lance, an old shield, a greyhound for racing, and a skinny old horse’. These are some of the most celebrated opening lines in world literature, where Cervantes introduces the figure of Don Quixote, a knight of bygone times. Rejecting the new values of the age that fate has ordained for him, he continues to look back with crazy inventiveness and cling to the ideals of a world which has—albeit recently—disappeared.
The words of Cervantes were the first thing that came into my mind when I met Ignacio del Rio y Dueñas. He is not a knight from 16th century Spain but a present-day chemical engineer from Oaxaca in Mexico. Instead of a lance and old nag he has a white lab coat and a host of things to recount.
The modern windmills against which he is fighting his personal battle are the chemical colorants which are challenging the survival of significantly more environmentally-friendly methods. The course of his life is intriguing: he started work many years ago developing detergents and stain removal products, now he works to add color to foodstuffs and clothing in a completely natural way. His adventure started in a food company when, to make food and beverages a bright red, he rediscovered the cochineal, a small insect parasite living on the prickly pear cactus, from which a carmine-colored dye can be obtained by grinding the dry beetle.
For a long time this precious natural color was an irreplaceable raw material for native peoples. Crushed to powder and pressed into small circular disks the red pigment was even used as a currency of exchange. The Spanish conquistadores were amazed at the bright colors of the clothes worn by native people due to the use of cochineal, and a thriving trade in this natural colorant soon sprang up, for a few hundred years giving the world a touch of red.
With the advent of synthetic methods an inexorable and fairly rapid decline set in. But there was a problem since the artificial colorants had a disastrous impact on the natural environment. In an area like Oaxaca, where people retain the custom of dying clothes at home, hundreds of liters of sulfuric acid are used every day to fix the dye. The acid contaminates the water table and results in serious medical problems.
When we use chemistry to give brighter colors to food and beverages, the effects on human health are never beneficial. For this reason Ignacio del Rio has been committed to a battle for the last twenty years in order to promote home-based breeding of the cochineal beetle and the use of its precious product.
In today’s world, observes Ignacio, there is an abundance of products born of modern technology: pre-prepared convenience meals, transgenic cereals, artificial colorants and preservatives, milk and chocolate substitutes. It is fortunate there are people aware that abusing these substances, which are not always used properly, can have terrible consequences for our health.
So why not make every effort—without spurning the benefits of technology—to use natural products to the maximum extent possible? Brightly colored foods look more attractive and the food industry has always endeavored to meet this preference, catching the eye and indulging the palate of consumers. Economic advantages have assured the success of chemical colorants but, given that the human organism suffers undesirable effects, we should favor natural methods, especially if they provide identical quality. Following this simple logic, Ignacio has created a thriving business in Oaxaca producing cochineal but its benefits are wider ranging.
He aims to set up training initiatives and in his laboratory he teaches the use of this and other ancient methods of pigmentation and dyeing, knowing that adding natural colorants to food is not only good for health but also and opportunity for the campesinos to gain economic benefits through profitable and dignified work.
First printed in La Stampa on February 6, 2006
Adapted by Ronnie Richards