You might have caught the news headlines a few years back when Starbucks announced they would no longer be using carmine as a red food coloring in their drinks. After pressure from their customers to stop using the dye, they finally agreed to make the switch to another type of dye in their drinks and food products. But what is carmine and why did customers want them to stop using it?
Carmine is part of the family of food dyes used to make packaged and prepared foods look more vibrant and appealing. Its bright red color can be found in all kinds of food products lining supermarket shelves, including candy, ice cream, kids’ snacks, drinks, and more.
It’s also found in body care products like eyeshadows, shampoos, and lotions. It’s often used interchangeably with red no. 40, so they share many of the same food lists where you might find the dyes.
Sometimes carmine is confused with red 40, but they are definitely not the same. Red 40 comes from a coal tar or petroleum base that’s refined into something considered edible by many for consumption (it’s true safety, however, is questionable).
Carmine, on the other hand, is made from bugs. Yes, you read that right — insects are used to create that bright red eye-catching color.
The two dyes are mostly interchangeable in food, cosmetic, and body care products, but they have different sources and can cause various reactions in people. Let’s break down how carmine is made and how it compares with red 40.
How Is Red Food Dye Made?
Carmine is a very old red dye, dating back to the Aztecs in the 1500s. When Europeans discovered their culture during explorations, they were using cochineal extract as a colorant for dying fabrics a bright shade of red.
Other very similar insects were used for the same purpose in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Egyptian cultures. The powdered dye resulting from these scale insects was called kermes, qirmiz, and other regional names, including the Medieval Latin carminium which is where our modern name carmine came from.
Since then, the dye has been used for a number of purposes including, most recently, dying food to make it more fun and appetizing. It is also still used in Mexico and other indigenous American cultures in traditional fabric dyeing and weaving practices.
The Carmine Making Process
The scale insect that the dye comes from is called a cochineal bug which spends its life attached to prickly pear cacti in Central and South America. Harvested for hundreds of years or more, this bug is currently mostly collected on prickly pear plantations in Peru and the Canary Islands. Peru is the biggest exporter of this dye, averaging 70 tons a year. When you consider that it takes roughly 70,000 cochineal insects to create one pound of dye, that’s a lot of bugs!
The prickly pear pads are collected and then stored in warehouses, where workers gather the bugs off of them. The female cochineal spends its life burrowed into the plant, so it’s tricky to extract. Once pulled off, they’re sorted and then sun-dried. They are then crushed, revealing the bright red color inside the insect bodies. The outside of the bugs is grey covered in a white protective powder, so the contrast is impressive!
The crushed bugs are then mixed with an acidic alcohol solution, which brings out the aspects of the dye that will be used. This is why the dye is sometimes called cochineal extract.
Sometimes the dye is mixed with a solution like borax for specific color effects. When this is mixed with water and other fluid substances, the resulting dye is incredibly bright red pigment. It also comes in various shades of red, making it useful for many different products.
Sometimes other insects that are a related species in the genus Dactylopius are also used and they create almost indistinguishable results as the D. coccus, the bugs typically used. Altogether they are referred to as cochineal insects.
Is Carmine a Safe Food Dye?
In the past, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed carmine to fall under an umbrella term on labels of “natural dyes.” However, when it was discovered that this dye can cause severe allergic reactions (including anaphylaxis) in some people, they decided that it needed to be clearly labeled on packages.
So these days, you’ll see one of these names on packages that contain the dye: carmine, cochineal, cochineal extract, crimson lake, carmine lake, carminic acid, or natural red 4.
But is it generally safe? The answer is yes, if you don’t have an allergy to it, you should be fine ingesting the dye. As it’s made from a natural substance, it doesn’t have any specific health risks either. It’s also considered a generally renewable resource, which makes it a better option than many of the more toxic dyes being used on the market currently.
Bugs can gross people out, which is why there was quite a stir when the public discovered what the dye was made from. But if you can get your mind around the idea, it’s a more appetizing option than the alternative.
Red 40 and red 2 are alternative dyes that are made from coal tar and petroleum, which we know isn’t a renewable resource. It’s also linked to several health conditions, including cancer, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reproductive issues, and allergies.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a consumer advocacy organization based in Washington D.C. that studies food dye risks and impacts on health. You can read their concerns about these carcinogen containing dyes in their report Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.
When we realize how toxic these petroleum-based food dyes are, carmine begins to look a lot more appealing.
Is Carmine Vegan?
Though carmine is safer and a more sustainable food dye source, it is not vegan or vegetarian since it contains insects. For those who prefer to avoid eating animals, this is one dye to skip.
You might also consider the risks associated with other toxic dyes, as well as the considerable damage that the petroleum industry is causing to our earth. In addition, other mainstream dyes are tested on animals, which also goes against many vegan and vegetarian values.
Your best bet for avoiding these dyes is to choose packaged foods that are dyed with natural, animal-free substances like turmeric, beta-carotene, and beet juice. Or choose whole foods that avoid dyeing and packaging issues altogether.
Using Knowledge to Improve Your Health
All of this discussion about food dyes leads us to worry about our food industry. It’s apparent that products are not always made with our best health interests in mind including potential allergies. But by better understanding these issues, you can make more informed choices as a consumer which can lead to personal health empowerment.
When deciding whether you should buy something, consider the color additives and always read the food label. You’ll find ingredients lists on the back of every package, which can help you decide if the product is worth eating. You might not be bothered by the use of carmine in foods, or you might find it unappealing or unethical. Either way, avoiding toxic artificial food dyes is always a good idea whatever your values are around food.
Of course, the absolute best option is to always choose to support your local food economy and vote by how you spend your money. By avoiding big corporations, you can instead invest in your local farmers. The best part of this choice is that you’ll be getting the best quality food on the planet so you can deeply nourish your body in the way that it truly needs to be nourished.
You can make a difference in your own health and the health of those around you by the example you set. Choosing to be empowered in your health choices creates a ripple effect that can have a big impact on your life, your family’s lives, and the lives of those in your community. Understand the risks of processed foods and choose to support whole-life well-being!