The Color Red: Cochineal Dye and Carmine




If there is one color that is associated with power, energy and vitality, it is the color red. Red is also the color of blood and is used to denote sacrifice, danger and courage. It is also one of the most eye-catching of colors, which is why it is a favourite color of marketers, with words like sale almost inevitably being written in red. Even in food products, red food coloring can add to the visual appeal of the product. For a color that is so much in demand, there is a ‘gruesome’ history associated with it that many people are unaware of.




Traditionally, colorants were chosen from nature. For example, red beet food coloring or bright yellow turmeric colorants were popular choices among manufacturers. Another color that was very popular especially in food products was carmine red food coloring. Carmine red is a bright purplish-red pigment that is derived from insects. You heard that right! Cochineals, oval shaped insects found in tropical America, are the source from which carmine pigments are extracted. They are soft-bodied insects that feed off plant moisture and nutrition and live on cacti. The insects produce carminic acid as a part of their self-defence mechanism, which is extracted and used to create the carmine pigment. While it is not difficult to source cochineals as they are available in plenty living on cacti, a vast number of insects need to be killed to create the dye – for just one kilogram of carmine dye, up to 10,000 insects may need to be killed.





Extraction of carmine from the cochineals includes several techniques. The dried bodies of insects are powdered, boiled in a solution of ammonia or sodium carbonate, filtered to remove insoluble matter, purified, and regulated for stability of color. For many years, the natural dye was used on fabric worn by kings, nobles, the wealthy, and the clergy and was considered a symbol of status and power. Uniforms of the British Royal Guards also used carmine for their vibrant uniforms. Manufacturers of rugs and tapestries in their residences and artists creating water color paintings of those times also used carmine pigments to enhance their work.





Synthetic red colors have now replaced carmine in the textile industry since the natural pigment tends to fade over time and this reduces the value and appeal of the textile. However, carmine is still widely in use in today’s world.

The ingredient list for food products like red velvet cake or strawberry ice cream is most likely to have carmine food coloring mentioned in it. As an alternative to artificial food colors that can have severe health impacts, people prefer the use of natural dyes like carmine for food coloring. It must be noted that carmine has been causing allergic reactions in a small number of people. Due to this, multinational companies and big brands have discontinued the use of carmine.

The cosmetics industry has also embraced carmine wholeheartedly as it can add a vibrant red, pink or orange pigment to lipstick, blush, eye shadow and nail polish. CI 75470, “cochineal extract,” “crimson lake,” “natural red 4,” or “carmine” are the names likely to be listed in the ingredient list.


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