Red Dye From the Cochineal Insect in Your Food
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Red Dye From the Cochineal Insect in Your Food

Where does red dye come from? What insect is used to make red food coloring? How is red food coloring made? What are the names used for the red coloring that comes from insects? What products are made using red dye that comes from insects? What is carmine red? What is cochineal red?

Red dye in foods usually comes from one of two sources. Allura red, also known as FD & C Red 40, Food Red 17, and E129, was originally made from coal tar but is currently generally made from petroleum. It has been linked to behavior problems in children and pets. As such people demanded other sources of red dye, one is carmine, which comes from insects and it is this red which we will be talking about.

Carmine comes from the female Cochineal insects. Carmine is very popular in food, drink, as a clothing dye, and for cosmetics such as lipstick.

The cochineal insect is found in Mexico, Central America and down into Peru (and have been exported to Spain, Bolivia, Chile, and the Canary Islands), and have been used to make red dye for hundreds of years, recently becoming popular again as people tried to get away from Allura red, mentioned above.

To make carmine red, also known as cochineal or E120, the 3 month old females are are killed by plunging them into hot water then drying them in the sun. Different reds can be produced by adding aluminum, salts, or by drying the insects in other ways. Approximately 70,000 insects are needed to produce 1 pound of dye.

The female Cochineal insect cover themselves with a waxy substance that hides their deep red insides and protects them from the sun while they feed on cacti. Unlike the males of the species, they do not have wings.

What is Carmine Red Used in?

Carmine Red, Cochineal, E120, is found in many food products, not just those that are red, but also those that are pink, purple,and orange:

  • Drinks – juice, pop, milkshakes, alcoholic beverages, etc.
  • Meat
  • Fake Crab and Lobster
  • Maraschino Cherries
  • Jam
  • Gelatin
  • Cheddar Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Ice Cream
  • Icing
  • Candy
  • Lipstick
  • Eye Shadow
  • Blush
  • Nail Polish
  • Pills
  • Paint
  • Clothing

People who are concerned should read the ingredient list, looking for Carmine Red, Cochineal, or E120, Natural Red 4, however it may also be listed as “natural coloring”.

Vegetarians and Vegans would not consume anything containing the dye made from these insects, but it can be hard to detect. It would also not be allowed under Islamic law, Judaism, nor would it be considered Halal.

On the whole the use of Carmine Red is considered safer than Allura red, however some people are allergic and many people simply object to the use of insects in such a manner.

At the current time New Zealand has banned the use of cochineal.

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Comments (3)

So we have been eating dried insects in our red food and the alternative is coal tar or petroleum? Or we could stop demanding that our food be coloured to appeal to our sense of esthetics. Any other choices? I thought that purple cabbage was used in some food dyes.

I just thought of something - I wonder where the red comes from in my hair dye? Your articles are good at getting me to think about where stuff that we take for granted comes from.

Brenda, WOW I had no idea. Very interesting article. Voted and shared on FB. Peace Jaz

I'm just learning about this too since the report came out about Starbuck's using the cochineal dye in their strawberry drinks.  Wouldn't it have been logical to just use strawberries?  Thanks for opening our eyes on this one.