Carmine: A Natural Red Colorant (E120)


Unlocking the secret behind the vibrant red hues found in your favorite candies, cosmetics, and even fabrics can lead you to a surprising discovery: carmine. This natural red colorant, also known as E120, has a fascinating history, and it continues to be used in various products around the world.

With the E120 you get to give food a shade ranging from pink to purple, so it can be used in any product that requires these shades and, naturally, do not have an attractive color for the consumer. Due to this wide palette of color the E120 is one of the most used food additives in the market. But before going deep into this we should start with the historical and cultural origins of this color.

Historical & Cultural Origins of this color

Historical Uses:

Did you know that carmine, the natural red dye we find in everything from lipstick to candy, has a historical connection to royalty? As early as the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors in South America were captivated by the vibrant red cloaks worn by the Aztec nobility. These cloaks were dyed with carmine, derived from cochineal insects. The conquistadors recognized the dye’s potential and brought it back to Europe, where it quickly became a symbol of luxury and wealth, reserved for the elite and even used to dye the garments of kings and queens.

Cultural Association of Red Color

Ever wondered why Santa Claus wears a bright red suit? While the current iconic image of Santa is relatively recent, the association between red and festivity goes back centuries. In many cultures, red symbolizes good luck, prosperity, and celebration. Carmine, with its vibrant hue and natural origin, likely played a role in this association, as it was often used to dye festive clothing and decorations for special occasions. This cultural connection might be why the image of Santa in a red suit resonates so strongly with people around the world.

How do we get this Natural Red Dye?

The brilliant red natural dye, carmine (also known as E120), is surprisingly derived from the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus). These tiny scale insects, native to South America, feed on cacti and produce carminic acid as a defense mechanism. To obtain carmine, the dried female insects are crushed and processed, extracting the carminic acid. This vivid red pigment is widely used in cosmetics, food, and textiles for its vibrant hue and stability.

Specific harvesting methods:

Traditionally, cochineal insects are harvested by hand, a meticulous process often involving indigenous knowledge and passed down through generations. Farmers carefully brush the female insects, typically before egg-laying, off the prickly pear cacti using soft brushes or cloth. This minimizes damage to the cacti and ensures the collected insects are mature, yielding the highest carminic acid content.

Scale of production:

Carmine production remains relatively small-scale compared to synthetic dyes. While significant quantities are produced in Peru, the Canary Islands, and other regions, it’s still considered a niche product due to the labor-intensive harvesting and processing involved.

Applications of Carmine Color

Within the food industry, this colorant is widely used in meat products. Whatever you can imagine, it carries E120. And in general, the products in this category come from animal sources and the characteristic color of these foods is pink/red. Several food have e120 in it like sausages, hotdogs, sausages, pork products, chicken, etc, have this natural addition.

But not only meat products have E120, but also many jams, jams, syrups, gummies, industrial cakes, vegetable preserves, ice cream and dairy products such as strawberry yoghurts or red fruits, in beverages such as soft drinks, fruit and energy. Everything, absolutely everything, contains E120!

Potential Health Concerns and Regulations Surrounding Carmine

While carmine is derived from a natural source, there is an ongoing debate about its potential to trigger allergic reactions in some individuals. It’s important to note that regulatory bodies like the FDA and EFSA have established guidelines and limitations for carmine’s use in food and cosmetics, aiming to ensure consumer safety. If you have any concerns, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional. For those interested in learning more about the ongoing conversations surrounding carmine, conducting further research from reputable sources is encouraged.

Regarding its regulation, it is very important to point out that E120 has the FD&C classification of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States and is included in the list of additives of the European Economic Community (current European Union) under the parameters of permitted toxicity. This means that it is a natural colorant that is not harmful to human intake.

Regulatory bodies like the FDA and EFSA have established guidelines and limitations for the safe use of carmine in food and cosmetic products. These regulations aim to ensure consumer safety and responsible use of the colorant.

It’s important to emphasize that this article is not intended to take a stance on the debate surrounding carmine. The information provided is for informational purposes only, and readers are encouraged to conduct their own research and consult with healthcare professionals for any specific concerns they may have

Natural Red Alternatives to Carmine

It’s important to note that carmine isn’t the only option for achieving red hues. The development of alternative red colorants has provided manufacturers with a wider range of choices. These alternatives include natural options like beetroot or anthocyanins extracted from fruits, and even synthetically derived red colorants. For example, beet extract is often used in organic and health-conscious food products, while anthocyanins from sources like red grapes can be used in beverages and food items.

Synthetic red colorants, like Allura Red (E122), are also widely used in various industries due to their consistency and affordability. However, it is also important to highlight that the use of this artificial food coloring is linked to several health risks specially in children.

For a wide scientific view we suggest reviewing this article.

If you want to know more about IMBAREX’s Natural Colors feel free to reach out us here



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