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You've Probably Consumed This Food Colorant That is Made From Insects

A food colorant made from crushed bugs!?

You know those bright red lollipops, candies, ice creams, and baked goods? Chances are they're made with carmine, a common red food and cosmetic dye.

Red food dye has always given our beloved red velvet cupcakes their rich, festive color. But that aesthetic pleasure comes with a pretty nasty secret.

Carmine is part of the family of food dyes used to make packaged and prepared foods look more vibrant and appealing. Unlike other natural food dyes, like annatto, which comes from the seeds of the achiote tree, carmine is made with crushed insects. Yep, you read that right - insects that are dried, ground, and used to make a colorant.

It’s also found in body care products like eyeshadows, shampoos, and lotions. It’s often used interchangeably with red dye 40, so they share many of the same food lists where you might find the dyes.

However, this red colorant is not made from synthetic, potentially dangerous ingredients like coal or petroleum (like red dye 40), so could it be considered the healthiest option?

It does come with potential side effects, and it is, after all, made with insects, so it may be best to avoid all together.

Carmine, also called cochineal extract, comes from the insect species Dactylopius coccus Costa. These bugs used to harvest carmine are mainly harvested in Peru and the Canary Islands, where they live on prickly pear cacti.

Carmine is a very old red dye, dating back to the Aztecs in the 1500s - they were using cochineal extract as a colorant for dying fabrics a bright shade of red. Other very similar insects were used for the same purpose in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Egyptian cultures.

It is also still used in Mexico and other indigenous American cultures in traditional fabric dyeing and weaving practices.

How Is It Made?

Carmine is made by crushing the female cochineal insect. The insects are harvested from prickly pear pads, sun-dried, and crushed.

They are then put into an acidic solution that produces carminic acid. This creates a very bright red dye that can be altered with the use of borax or other solutions. It comes in various shades of red, making it useful for many different products.

This is one of the oldest human uses of an insect for natural dye. There are reports that it takes about 70,000 insects to produce just one pound of dye!

To learn more about how these bugs are harvested to make red dye for food and cosmetics, click here!

Is It a Safe Food Dye?

In the past, the U.S Food and Drug Administration allowed carmine to fall under an umbrella term on labels of "natural dyes". However, when it was discovered in a study that this dye can cause severe allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis, they decided that it needed to be clearly labeled.

It is now labeled specifically as carmine or cochineal extract on ingredient labels, and it no longer falls under the umbrella term "natural color".

Is it generally safe? The answer is yes, if you don't have an allergy to it, you should be fine ingesting this dye. Aside from the risk of an allergic reaction, carmine is considered safe, as it's a natural substance and isn't linked to any specific health risks.


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