Food Safety – Ground Cochineal Insects Produces Red Food Coloring

Certain food coloring is actually composed of ground insects! So lets have a look into some of the products containing carmine, along with the bugs inside.

Today’s food products contain a huge magnitude of ingredients and additives to make them have a nice appearance, enhance the taste, and extend their shelf life. Just for fun, people should take a few minutes to do a quick Internet search on food ingredients, their hazards, and some of the stranger food ingredients. One of the strangest, but not so harmful, ingredients in the “world of food” is the red coloring carmine. Carmine is a red dye that is created from a ground Cochineal – a beetle…

Pretty Little Bugs – The Cochineal

The Cochineal is a small beetle most commonly found in South America and Mexico. It thrives on cactuses and is lacking that “tasty” appearance! The Cochineal is harvested in the wild and is also farm raised. The Cochineal produces carminic acid as a protection against other predators and it is this acid that is harvested to produce the red dye used in food coloring.

To extract the carminic acid, the insects are harvested and killed by immersion in hot water (humane?). Once the insects have been killed, they are dried in various ways (which produce various colors of red) and the cochineal extract is made from pulverizing the insects. Carmine, a more concentrated version of the red dye, is produced by boiling the insects in ammonia and is further processed in other various chemicals.

Once the red dye has been processed, it is ready to become coloring for cosmetics, clothing, or a food ingredient.

Powdered Beetles as an Ingredient

The red dye processed from the Cochineal beetle is commonly identified in food ingredients as “natural coloring” along with Red noted in the label. Since beetles are living creatures, the FDA has declared the red dye as a “natural” ingredient. Keep this in mind when grocery shopping if you had rather not consume Cochineal beetles.

Carmine is most commonly found in soft drinks, red candies, certain yogurts and ice creams, and many other products on the market. Now, all this might sound disgusting, but actually there have only been a few people who showed an allergic reaction to consuming carmine! Also, the carmine is a very powerful anti-oxidant!

Thinking of health, consuming carmine is much more likely to be a safer food color than those that are generated in a laboratory from “who-knows-what”. They have been safely consumed for over 500 years and will likely continue to remain as a consumable coloring.

Carmine, the Consumer, and the FDA

As mentioned earlier, there are a few people who have shown allergic reactions to carmine and there are others who refuse to consume “powdered Cochineal beetles”. With that said, the Food and Drug Administration has published a final rule to require the declaration by name of the color additives cochineal extract and carmine on the label of all food and cosmetic products in the United States. This final rule will be effective on January 5, 2011, allowing time for processing facilities to prepare labels for the change.

Once the final rule has been implemented, consumers who have issues with consuming products containing carmine will be able to easily identify the ingredient in the product.


  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Food Ingredients and Colors”, 6/30/2010
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Guidance for Industry: Cochineal Extract and Carmine: Declaration by Name on the Label of All Foods and Cosmetic Products That Contain These Color Additives; Small Entity Compliance Guide”, 5/19/2009
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Labeling of Bug-Based Food Colorings Will Help Some Consumers”, Michael F. Jacobson, 1/5/2009


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