The Gross Truth about Natural Colors

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.

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.

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).

In good news for those of us looking to avoid the products of animal exploitation, the ingredient must be included on packaging labels when used as a food additive, as 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 it on their ingredient labels, due to objections from people who have concerns for reasons of health, ethics or religion.

Image: Suat Eman /

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.

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.

Image: Geoff Peters (Flickr)

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. According to one description:

“The insects are carefully brushed from the cacti… and placed into bags. The bags are taken to the production plant and there, the insects are then killed by immersion in hot water or by exposure to sunlight, steam or the heat of an oven. It is to be noted that the variance in appearance of commercial cochineal is caused by the different methods used during this process. It takes about 70,000 insects to make one pound (454 gm) of cochineal. The body of one cochineal is said to contain between 18-20% of carminic acid.

The part of the insect that contains the most carmine is the abdomen that houses the fertilized eggs of the cochineal. Once dried, a process begins whereby the abdomens and fertilized eggs are separated from the rest of the anatomical parts. These are then ground into a powder and cooked to extract the maximum amount of color. This cooked solution is filtered and put through special processes that cause all carmine particles to precipitate to the bottom of the cooking container. The liquid is removed and the bottom of the container is left with pure carmine.”

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

Image: Madeleine Ball (Flickr)

In the 15th century, carmine dye was used in Central America for coloring fabrics. In the late 19th century, after synthetic pigments and dyes had been invented, the production of natural dye gradually lessened.

However, 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?

with M Butterflies Katz

Image © Sarah Klockars-Clauser for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

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William C
William C2 months ago


W. C
W. C2 months ago

Thank you.

rene davis
irene davis7 years ago


Jane W.
Jane W7 years ago

Vanessa, do you think insects are not animals? They too are part of the animal kingdom.

Carole L.
Carole L7 years ago


Charles Webb
Charles Webb7 years ago

I wouldn't care except it's unclean for me. We can only eat grasshoppers and crickets in the insect family.

Vanessa B.
Vanessa B7 years ago

Ewww. But I'm glad it's not an animal product.

Chris Monahan
Chris Monahan7 years ago

Didn't know this, so good to know

wizzy wizard
wiz wi7 years ago

all i can see theses days is that white stuff(snow)

Danuta W.
Danuta W7 years ago