Cochineal, Carmine and Carminic Acid
Let’s talk about British soldiers, the ancient Inca and Aztec civilizations, the Cardinals of the Catholic Church, and what any of that has to do with food.
It turns out that there is an insect called the Cochineal that lives on cactus in the Southern U.S. down through Mexico and Central America. The ancients discovered that when they squashed these bugs, their fingers would be stained bright red. They like the effect so much that eventually, they started harvesting the insects just so they could dye things.
In Europe, red dyes existed, but they were no where near as vibrant as the dye produced from Cochineal. After the new world was discovered, the cochineal dye became one of the most valuable imports to Europe. It was used to colour everything from the trim on a Cardinals cassock to the coats of British Soldiers who of course become known as the red coats.
Today, as you have already guessed, the dye has now become widely used in foods as well as in cosmetics. It has largely been replaced by synthetic dyes in the textile industry. In 1995 the estimated total demand for Cochineal was 300 tonnes.1 The largest producers are Peru and the Canary Islands.
Cochineal or carmine or carminic acid on a food label refers to a natural bright red food dye with an E number of 120. Additives with E numbers between 100 and 199 are generally used as food dyes.
The Cochineal is an insect. Carmine is the crimson red pigment produced by the insect, and carminic acid is the actual chemical that gives the pigment its colour.
To produce carmine, the dried cochineal insects are boiled in water. This produces carminic acid which is then combined with alumn. Other chemicals such as cream of tartar, stannous chloride, or potassium hydrogen oxalate, can be added to help extract a solid (powder) from the liquid.
Carmine is commonly used in yogurt, candy, beverages, applesauce, baked goods, and red-colored beverages.
Unfortunately, Canadian rules allow manufacturers to list only the word “colour” on the ingredient label. As a result, I haven’t found any specific examples of products containing carmine.
If you happen to know of any products that use carmine, please leave a comment.
Health Issues / Side Effects:
Some people have had allergic reactions and even anaphylactic shock after eating foods coloured with carmine.2 Industrial workers exposed to carmine may develop asthma.3
Many people are not comfortable consuming food products made from insects. These foods are not suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Insects are not considered kosher, so they are not suitable for Jews and Muslims who follow kosher or halal diets. As a result, there has been some pressure for companies to stop using it. Last year, Starbucks announced that they would be replacing carmine with the tomatoe based dye, lycopene.4
- United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
- World Health Organization – International Programme on Chemical Safety
- U.S. National Library of Medicine
- Starbucks Blog