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What is Carmine?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Carmine is a brilliant red dye made from crushed scale insects, typically cochineal or Polish cochineal insects. This dye is used in a wide variety of products, from cheese to paints, and people are often unaware of its use, due to the fact that labeling laws do not usually require its disclosure. Carmine has attracted a great deal of attention in some communities such as the vegetarian community due to its use as a food additive.

In many regions of the world, producers can simply use the euphemism “color added” to disclose the presence of carmine, but most consumers are not savvy enough to know what that phrase means. The dye is also listed as crimson lake or natural red number four, and in the European Union, it is identified as E120. On occasion, it will be explicitly listed as “carmine” on a label, or as “cochineal dye.”

To make carmine, producers collect thousands of cochineal insects and then crush them. Depending on the conditions in which the insects are crushed, the color of the dye can vary considerably, and this is an important consideration for companies that want to make consistent dyes. The crushing causes the insects to release carminic acid, a substance which they generate to repel predators, and this can be treated to yield carmine.

Pure carmine is red and very crumbly. The dye is often adulterated with other materials to make it easier to handle and ship, and sometimes it can be difficult to control its quality and safety as a result. Once prepared, it is sold to a wide variety of industries for use in things like textile dyes, paints, inks, foods, cosmetics, and artificial flowers.

As a food additive, carmine is a source of concern to some people. For vegetarians and people who follow religions with dietary restrictions, the fact that this dye is often not labeled is very frustrating, as it can make it hard to avoid. Some people also have adverse reactions to carmine, which has led to a push among food safety activists to clearly label it so that people who wish to avoid it may do so.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is carmine and where does it come from?

Carmine is a natural red dye derived from cochineal insects, specifically Dactylopius coccus. These tiny insects are native to Latin America where they live on cacti. The vibrant red color is extracted from the female insects' bodies and eggs. It's a centuries-old coloring method, valued for its durability and vivid hue.

Is carmine safe to use in food and cosmetics?

Yes, carmine is generally considered safe for use in food and cosmetics. Regulatory agencies like the FDA in the United States have approved carmine for use in various products. However, some individuals may experience allergic reactions, and it's not suitable for vegetarians, vegans, or those who avoid insect-derived products.

How is carmine harvested and processed?

Carmine is harvested by collecting cochineal insects from their host cacti. The insects are then dried and crushed to extract the carminic acid. This acid is further processed with aluminum or calcium salts to create the carmine dye, which can be used in a wide range of products, from lipstick to yogurt.

What are the alternatives to carmine for those who prefer not to use it?

For those seeking alternatives to carmine, there are several options. Beet juice, annatto, and synthetic dyes like Red No. 40 can provide similar coloring effects. Advances in biotechnology have also led to the development of fermentation-based colorants that mimic carmine's properties without using insects.

Can carmine cause any health issues?

While carmine is largely considered safe, it can cause health issues for some individuals. According to the FDA, carmine may trigger severe allergic reactions in rare cases, including anaphylactic shock. People with known sensitivities should avoid carmine-containing products and seek alternatives.

How can consumers identify carmine in product ingredient lists?

Consumers can identify carmine in ingredient lists under several names: carmine, cochineal extract, crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120. It's important to read labels carefully, especially if you have dietary restrictions or allergies related to this natural dye.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1002329 — On Oct 30, 2019

Not sure I want to eat something that is produced to ward off predators, since humans are the greatest of all predators! Makes sense to try and stay away! Why do they gotta put it in my fruit cocktail?

By anon348579 — On Sep 18, 2013

"Just bugs" is true, but very dangerous if you're one of the people who are allergic. This allergy is as dangerous as a peanut allergy, and maybe more dangerous considering how difficult it is to identify. Standard allergy testing doesn't include this bug (it is a special test) and trying to trace back everything you've eaten or used that may have had a bit of this particular red, pink, or purple dye takes several incidences to figure out, if ever. The ingestion could be from a cookie one time, eye shadow the next time, and an anti-biotic the next - all different colors from purple frosting to pink eye shadow to a dark rust coating on a pill. And then the next time you eat a cookie with purple frosting you're fine (because it is red 40 and not carmine that time).

If you're lucky, you have an informed allergist and it doesn't take years to figure out. Watch out for carmine in yogurt (very popular), popsicles and juices as well.

By anon307921 — On Dec 07, 2012

I don't understand why it is used at all. Every product out there made with carmine can be made without it. It's only used to add color. Ever hear of beet juice?

By anon260954 — On Apr 13, 2012

They're just bugs. You probably eat hundreds of them in your sleep anyway.

By anon253698 — On Mar 10, 2012

Shame on our food industry for stooping to such a low. Being a vegetarian all my life, and now having a child sensitive to dyes -- this makes me disgusted. The really discouraging part is the fact that they try insult us by hiding it with words they think we will not understand.

By anon130749 — On Nov 29, 2010

What is scary is that carmine is one of the ingredients listed in the widely-popular Sensa weight loss plan.

African red bugs? Sheesh! I'll pass!

By anon40485 — On Aug 08, 2009

If I ingest or just breathe make-up products with carmine I go into anaphylactic shock and end up in hospital. I have to be so careful!

By anon37684 — On Jul 21, 2009

I have a habit of reading the ingredients of what I eat and that is how I found out that Carmine is really African red bugs. How can we have a government body that is supposed to be protecting our food consumption compromise with those who are just aiming to make money? what is the recourse to this madness?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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