When we were around 8 years old, a girl we used to play with told us that the red candies we were eating, were actually made of crushed insects. This shocked us and it haunted us every time we ate the candies. Is this true or did the girl prank us?
It wasn’t until we were much older that we finally uncovered the mystery. The red candies did contain a red colour dye called carmine, which is extracted from scale insects called cochineal. We were absolutely disgusted by this newfound fact! And the bad news is that not only the red candies contain carmine, many other foods, beverages and even cosmetics as well.
So, what exactly is carmine?
Carmine is the red pigment that is extracted from the female cochineal insect. They are grown on cactus pads in South America. After harvesting they are thoroughly dried, then ground and mixed with water to produce cochineal or are further refined to produce carmine/ carminic acid. Each method produces a different colour that yields shades of red, pink, orange and purple.
It takes 80.000 to 100.000 insects to make 1 kilogram of cochineal dye. Peru is the largest exporter and produces 200.000 kg cochineal dye per year. Do the maths, that means at least 16.000.000.000 (16 billion) to 20.000.000.000 (20 billion) insects are killed each year and the production of other countries is not even included yet!
Carmine is commonly used in:
- ice cream
- fruit drinks
- soft drinks
- hair dyes
But, Carmine is also labelled as:
- Natural red 4
- Carmine/ Cochineal extract
- Carmine/ crimson lake
- Carminic acid
Since carmine is used in a variety of products, you have probably eaten or used it without knowing. However there are many plant-based alternatives available that are extracted from fruits and vegetables, for instance beetroot, cherry, raspberry, carrot, blueberry or plum. They provide excellent shades, but might cause some discolourations at higher temperatures. Which is also one of the main reasons why carmine is still preferred.
Fortunately, colouring techniques are getting more advanced so we hope all carmine will be replaced with real natural plant-based alternatives in the near future!