What is Carmine?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Carmine is a brilliant red dye made from crushed scale insects, typically cochineal or Polish cochineal insects. This dye is used in a wide variety of products, from cheese to paints, and people are often unaware of its use, due to the fact that labeling laws do not usually require its disclosure. Carmine has attracted a great deal of attention in some communities such as the vegetarian community due to its use as a food additive.

Thousands of cochineal insects are crushed in order to make carmine.
Thousands of cochineal insects are crushed in order to make carmine.

In many regions of the world, producers can simply use the euphemism “color added” to disclose the presence of carmine, but most consumers are not savvy enough to know what that phrase means. The dye is also listed as crimson lake or natural red number four, and in the European Union, it is identified as E120. On occasion, it will be explicitly listed as “carmine” on a label, or as “cochineal dye.”

Carmine may be featured in paint.
Carmine may be featured in paint.

To make carmine, producers collect thousands of cochineal insects and then crush them. Depending on the conditions in which the insects are crushed, the color of the dye can vary considerably, and this is an important consideration for companies that want to make consistent dyes. The crushing causes the insects to release carminic acid, a substance which they generate to repel predators, and this can be treated to yield carmine.

Carmine may be featured in cosmetics.
Carmine may be featured in cosmetics.

Pure carmine is red and very crumbly. The dye is often adulterated with other materials to make it easier to handle and ship, and sometimes it can be difficult to control its quality and safety as a result. Once prepared, it is sold to a wide variety of industries for use in things like textile dyes, paints, inks, foods, cosmetics, and artificial flowers.

As a food additive, carmine is a source of concern to some people. For vegetarians and people who follow religions with dietary restrictions, the fact that this dye is often not labeled is very frustrating, as it can make it hard to avoid. Some people also have adverse reactions to carmine, which has led to a push among food safety activists to clearly label it so that people who wish to avoid it may do so.

Carmine may be used to make artificial flowers.
Carmine may be used to make artificial flowers.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Not sure I want to eat something that is produced to ward off predators, since humans are the greatest of all predators! Makes sense to try and stay away! Why do they gotta put it in my fruit cocktail?


"Just bugs" is true, but very dangerous if you're one of the people who are allergic. This allergy is as dangerous as a peanut allergy, and maybe more dangerous considering how difficult it is to identify. Standard allergy testing doesn't include this bug (it is a special test) and trying to trace back everything you've eaten or used that may have had a bit of this particular red, pink, or purple dye takes several incidences to figure out, if ever. The ingestion could be from a cookie one time, eye shadow the next time, and an anti-biotic the next - all different colors from purple frosting to pink eye shadow to a dark rust coating on a pill. And then the next time you eat a cookie with purple frosting you're fine (because it is red 40 and not carmine that time).

If you're lucky, you have an informed allergist and it doesn't take years to figure out. Watch out for carmine in yogurt (very popular), popsicles and juices as well.


I don't understand why it is used at all. Every product out there made with carmine can be made without it. It's only used to add color. Ever hear of beet juice?


They're just bugs. You probably eat hundreds of them in your sleep anyway.


Shame on our food industry for stooping to such a low. Being a vegetarian all my life, and now having a child sensitive to dyes -- this makes me disgusted. The really discouraging part is the fact that they try insult us by hiding it with words they think we will not understand.


What is scary is that carmine is one of the ingredients listed in the widely-popular Sensa weight loss plan.

African red bugs? Sheesh! I'll pass!


If I ingest or just breathe make-up products with carmine I go into anaphylactic shock and end up in hospital. I have to be so careful!


I have a habit of reading the ingredients of what I eat and that is how I found out that Carmine is really African red bugs. How can we have a government body that is supposed to be protecting our food consumption compromise with those who are just aiming to make money? what is the recourse to this madness?

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