Carmine (E120), also called cochineal or natural red, is a red colouring additive. This colouring was used by the Incas and Aztecs and was probably brought to Europe in the 16th century. Nowadays, 80% of carmine production (200 tons a year) takes place in Peru, but other South American countries and even countries like Poland produce small amounts.
Carmine is made by bugs called cochineal scale. They live on cactuses and as they can’t fly, they produce carmine to protect themselves against predators. The male cochineal have a very short lifespan so they usually aren’t used to make carmine. The female cochineal and their eggs are scraped from the cactuses for carmine production. About 140,000 cochineal add up to about one kilo. They are first dried, baked in an oven, or thrown in hot water to kill them. Then they are squeezed and boiled in ammonia or sodiumcarbonate solution to extract the carmine from their bodies. 18-20 percent of a scale’s body consists of carmine. After this, the body parts are filtered out and the substance is mixed with aluminium. Sometimes acids are added to change the colour. Animal products such as egg white, fish glue or gelatin are also used sometimes. However, even when these additional animal products aren’t added, carmine is never vegan, as it always requires the use and killing of animals.
Around 70,000 cochineal have to die to make one pound of carmine. Even though this is a very inefficient way to make colouring, it is still widely used. As consumers do not seem to be so fond of artificial colouring in recent years, the usage of carmine has only increased. This is because it is very cheap and other natural colourings, such as those made from beet roots or strawberries, are much more expensive.
The acceptable daily intake (ADI) of carmine is 5 mg/kg of body weight. Carmine is not necessarily unhealthy, but some people have adverse reactions to it. There have been cases of hyperactivity among children because of carmine consumption or allergic reactions. The usage of carmine in cosmetics can also lead to allergic reactions. As some people have quite extreme reactions to carmine, it is compulsory to name it as an ingredient on food items. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also discourages food producers from using it, but it’s still allowed to be used. In addition, working with carmine can also lead to health problems, such as occupational asthma.
Carmine is used to make red, pink and purple colouring and mostly used in the following items:
Medicines (no longer in the EU since 2012 as there were too many allergic reactions)
Food, such as cookies, ice cream, candy and sauces
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