Natural Colors – Carmine & Cochineal

The words Cochineal, Cochineal Extract, Carmine, Crimson Lake, Natural Red 4, C.I. 75470, E120, and even some ‘natural colorings’ refer to a dye called ‘carminic acid’, which is primarily used as a food coloring and in cosmetics.

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Many consumers may not yet be aware that the red substance coloring their food, fabric, cosmetics or pharmaceuticals could be extracted from the crushed bodies of insects.

Carminic Acid

Carminic acid is a substance found in high concentration in cochineal insects. It is extracted from the insect’s body and eggs and is mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye (also known as cochineal). It has been known to cause severe allergic reactions, asthmatic attacks, and anaphylactic shock in some people.


As of January 5, 2011, a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation will require all foods and cosmetics containing cochineal to declare carminic acid on their ingredient labels, due to objections from people who have concerns for reasons of health, ethics or religion.

In food and drink

The water-soluble form of carmine is also used in some alcoholic drinks, such as Campari. The insoluble form is used in a wide variety of products, including some meat, sausages, processed poultry products, marinades, bakery products and toppings, cookies, desserts, icings, pie fillings, jams, preserves, gelatin desserts, juice beverages, some cheese and other dairy products, sauces, and sweets.

In pharmaceuticals

The pharmaceutical industry uses cochineal to color pills and ointments, and it is used in the cosmetics industry for hair- and skin-care products, lipsticks, face powders, rouges, and blushes.

According to one distributor of carmine, the product can be used in the following ways:

  • Food Industry – Frozen fish, meat, etc.
  • Beverage Industry – Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, etc.
  • Alcoholic Beverages – Products with low pH requiring red or orange tones
  • Dairy Industry – Yogurts, ice cream and dairy based beverages
  • Confections – Candy, fillings, syrups, chewing gum, etc.
  • Fruit Preparations – Canned fruits such as cherries, Jams, Pulp, etc.
  • Cosmetic Industry – Dispersions close to eye area, eye shadows, lipsticks, etc.
  • Others – Ketchup, powdered drinks, dehydrated soups, canned soups, etc.

Carmine is also used in the manufacture of artificial flowers, paints and crimson ink. A bright red dye and the stain carmine used in microbiology is often made from the carmine extract.

The cochineal insect

Cochineal insects are soft-bodied, flat, oval-shaped scale insects, native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico. They live on cacti, feeding on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. The deep crimson dye is produced by the females and their babies (nymphs) to deter predation by other insects, as they cannot fly, and they remain immobile while feeding.

For commercial production of carmine dye, cochineal bugs are farmed for three months, then collected at ninety days old.

During production, various other substances can be used, including stannous chloride, citric acid, borax, or gelatin.

As health fears over artificial food additives have increased, cochineal dyes are regaining popularity, making exploitation of the insect profitable again. As of 2005, Peru (the largest exporter) produced 200 tons of cochineal dye per year and the Canary Islands produced 20 tons per year. Chile and Mexico have also recently begun to export cochineal…

Quite aside from the health risks associated with the consumption of carmine, there’s something very concerning about the fact that we think nothing of crushing insects by the billions every year, for no reason other than that we like certain things to look a certain way. Is red coloring in food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and fabric so important to us that we are willing to turn a blind eye to its origin?


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© Gentle World 2023. Gentle World is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational organization, helping to build a more peaceful society by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making the transition. EIN: 59-1999433