Carmine, Cochineal, Crimson Lake, Natural Red 4, E120; it’s all the same thing. Some of know carmine to have been used by the Egyptians for makeup. But a lot of us are either unfamiliar with where it comes from or the fact that it’s even going into or on our bodies without us knowing. Basically, carmine is a red dye that comes from the crushed shell of female beetles. Though the label or ingredients may read loud and clear, it’s name seem to make it unrecognizable.Besides the fact that is just disgusting, one major thing to be aware of is the fact that some people may have a severe allergic reaction to this dye. It can even cause anaphylactic shock (check the video below)!
The purpose of this food additive is simply to attract consumers by making products more visually appealing: brighter and more vibrant. More specifically, carmine is usually found in red food items, but this isn’t always true. Things that are pink, orange, and purple could contain carmine, too. What contains this buggy ingredient? Well, many things, actually. “Carmine has been used for cosmetics, pharmaceutical coatings, dry mixes, surimi, fillings, cake icings, and hard candy. In the liquid form, it has found application in coloring bakery products, icings, yogurt, candy, ice cream, gelatin desserts, various milk-based and alcoholic beverages, fruit syrups, pet foods, fish cakes, jams/preserves, meat products, marmalades, hair and skin care products, soap, shampoos, lipsticks, face powders, rouges, and blushes” and even Starbucks Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino*, ketchup, nail polish, eye shadow, bottled cherries, sauces, paints, and even artificial flowers. Unfortunately, the list doesn’t end there. But there is a bright side to this (no pun intended)! Although a product is red, that does not always mean it contain carmine. For instance, Swedish Fish and Twizzlers are great examples of products that don’t.
So maybe you’re not concerned about dead eating bugs being in or on your body? But let’s not forget how these insects are obtained. Of course this procedure is no where near as horrifying as slaughterhouses, the process of turning them into a food additive isn’t that pleasant either: “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 at temperatures in excess of 212° F (100° C) to extract the maximum amount of color. This cooked solution is filtered and 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.”
Although many people could argue that they’re just beetles, why bother eating bugs when there’s an alternative used in products such as grape skin extract. Plus, there are bonuses to this. There have been no reported reactions as opposed to carmine and “are at lowering LDL cholesterol and promoting cardiovascular health. A food coloring ingredient made from grape skins would, if widely consumed, help protect the health of the public. It would probably give you all the health benefits of drinking wine, but without the alcohol.” But that’s not the only alternative available: red beets, purple sweet potatoes and paprika are also great replaces that can be used without killing a living creature.
Clearly, whether you want to eat bugs or not is left on your part, but you’d be surprised how easy it really can be to just read the ingredients of something and decide from there. Besides, doesn’t it make you feel safer being aware of what goes in and out of your body? You have the choice, so why not make an informed decision.
Let’s not forget that just because we commonly find products such as red, pink, or purple makeup, doesn’t mean there aren’t products that are these colors and don’t contain them. The same goes with candy, juices, and all other foods commonly containing this additive. Overall, the best thing to do in a situation like this is read the ingredients, do research, or simply ask the company themselves.
*“Starbucks took swift action on this issue. Company officials have pledged to transition ‘to lycopene, a natural, tomato-based extract, in the strawberry sauce (base) used in our Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino blended beverage and Strawberry Banana Smoothie.’ They also will be transitioning from ‘cochineal extract in our food offerings which currently contain it (Raspberry Swirl Cake, Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing, and Red Velvet Whoopie Pie).’“