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.