There’s Finally a Way to Make Red Food Dye Without Crushed Bugs

Do you enjoy a nice strawberry milkshake? How about a scrumptious red velvet cupcake? Ever grab some red gummy bears? If so, you might not realize where that red color actually comes from.

Dead insects are the source, and you’ve been eating them for years. Soon, though, you’ll never have to do that again.

Red is a notoriously difficult color to recreate for dye purposes. Food coloring producers decided to rely on carmine — female cochineal insects — which they dry and crush, as in the video below:

Carmine is also known as cochineal, cochineal extract, crimson lake or carmine lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120. Cochineals are harvested mainly in Peru and the Canary Islands. Because the cochnineals love hanging out on prickly pear, they’re frequently found in cacti plantations.

After harvesting, the insects are sun-dried and crushed. An acidic alcohol solution turns the powder into carminic acid.

It reportedly takes 70,000 individual insects just to make one pound of red food coloring. Carmine is also used in artificial flowers, paints, crimson colored ink, cosmetics and medications.

You might remember the 2012 brouhaha when consumer pressure convinced Starbucks to stop using carmine in its Strawberry and Creme Frappuccino. Once you know you’re eating bugs, you just want it to stop, right? Non-vegans, maybe this makes you understand the vegan plight a little bit, eh?

Until about 2009, the Food and Drug Administration didn’t require carmine to be specifically listed on ingredient labels. It hid there under names like “artificial color” or “color added.” You might’ve had no idea that carmine was an ingredient in your food or drink.

However, carmine causes severe allergic reactions in some people. Allergies affected enough people that the FDA began to require carmine to be included by name in ingredient lists.

Jacob Dalmose Rasmussen, vice president of commercial development at Chr. Hansen Natural Colors, tells Foodnavigator:

Strawberry red is a popular shade for food products—from cakes to confectionary to milkshakes. But until now, it has been nearly impossible to make a fire-engine red color with no risk of off-taste without using carmine. And as consumers move toward vegetarian and vegan food choices, the need for a carmine alternative has become more pressing.

Chr. Hansen, a bioscience company based in Denmark, managed to find a way, though. Ten years of development brought forth a really red sweet potato they’re calling the Hansen Sweet Potato, or Ipomoea batatas.

hansen sweet potato

Here’s the vibrantly red sweet potato that’s changing how we color foods red. Photo credit: Chr. Hansen

It took ten years of selective breeding to bring out the potato’s brilliant red color. The company pursued creating a truly red potato because it recognized the need to begin shifting away from carmine to something less objectionable and more palatable.

Chr. Hansen has recently launched a new line of plant-based bright red food coloring called FruitMax. It’s suitable for candies, water, ice, baked goods and bakery decorations, fruit preparation and fermented milk products. All those products can now be made shades of bright red to soft pinks — and not one insect has to die.

It’s so heartening to see companies like Chr. Hansen putting a decade’s worth of work into developing an insect-free carmine alternative — especially because they recognize the growing demand for vegan products.

I never thought I’d love a sweet potato this much.

Photo credit: Getty Images

73 comments

Danuta W
Danuta W2 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Maria P
Maria P2 days ago

Thanks for posting

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danii p
danii p4 days ago

thanks for sharing

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danii p
danii p4 days ago

thanks for sharing

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danii p
danii p4 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Richard B
Richard B4 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Sara S
Sara S5 days ago

Good news, but I wonder why they didn't just use red beets.

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Angela K
Angela K6 days ago

noted

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Leo C
Leo C6 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Mely Lu
Mely Lu6 days ago

thanks for sharing

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