Carmine & Cochineal – The Reason Why Some Red Dye Bugs People

There’s been a renaissance in the cosmetics industry for the vibrant red tones produced by Carmine. But did you know this colourant is derived from the ground up bodies of the South American cochineal beetle?

It’s a topic that particularly bugs vegans and vegetarians. Most consumers would be completely unaware that the phrases ‘cochineal extract’, ‘carmine’, ‘crimson lake’, ‘natural red 4’, ‘C.I. 75470’, ‘E120’, or even ‘natural colouring’ can refer to a dye that’s derived from an insect, which makes it very hard to avoid.

Aside from makeup and cosmetics, carmine is also used to manufacture artificial flowers, paints, and ink, and routinely added to foods like yogurt, ice cream, lollies  and juice – most notably red but also shades of pink, orange and purple.  Unfortunately as a food dye it has been known to cause severe allergic reactions, and even anaphylactic shock in some rare cases.

So what is Carmine exactly, and how did this bug byproduct become so ingrained in our food and cosmetics production?

Discovered by the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America for its ability to color fabrics, the use of cochineal dye has been dated back to the15th century.  The cochineal beetle, a parasite that feeds on cactus, produces bright red carminic acid to ward off predators. To extract this acid, insects are killed by immersion in hot water, exposure to sunlight, steam, or the heat of an oven, and then dried and ground up. Each method produces a different colour of cochineal powder.

To further process the dye and turn it from cochineal into carmine, the powdered insect bodies are then boiled in ammonia or a sodium carbonate solution, and alum is added to create a red aluminium salt.

Cochineal was so highly prized during the colonial period throughout Europe that its price was regularly quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. After synthetic pigments and dyes such as alizarin were invented in the late 19th century, production diminished overnight, however health fears over artificial food additives have renewed cochineal’s popularity.

While the dye is of natural origin and an alternative to artificial dyes, food products containing carmine-based food dye may prove to be a concern for people who are allergic to carmine, or people who choose not to harm any living creatures, such as vegetarians and vegans and followers of certain religions.

Because Alexami are a conscious vegan-friendly brand, we choose not to use carmine in ANY of our products. Alexami also avoids artificial dyes and synthetically enhanced FD&C colours. For more information about Alexami ingredients, visit

Did you know: The troublesome noxious weed known in Australia as ‘Prickly Pear’ was first brought to here in an attempt to start a cochineal dye industry in 1788?  Captain Arthur Phillip collected cochineal-infested Prickly Pear cactus plants from Brazil on his way to establish the first settlement at Botany Bay. At the time Spain and Portugal had a monopoly on cochineal, and the dye was integral to the British clothing industry (it was even used to dye the British soldiers’ trademark red coats!). The attempt failed in two ways: the Brazilian cochineal insects soon died out, but sub-species of Prickly Pear cactus thrived, eventually becoming a major pest weed that overrun 60 million acres of East Australian seaboard. The spread of the cactus was stalled in the 1920s by introducing a South American moth whose larvae feed on Prickly Pear, but you’ll still find the cactus across large pockets of Queensland and NSW.

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