Carmine is an ingredient found in a wide variety of foods and cosmetic products. It is a naturally occurring red colorant extracted from crushed cochineal insects. It can be used as a food dye or as a cosmetic ingredient. It takes 70,000 insects to make just one pound of this dye, and some people have severe allergic reactions to it. It is also a common allergen and has been reported to cause occupational asthma in some workers.
It is a highly heat-resistant pigment and can withstand some acidic processing conditions. It is usually combined with aluminum or calcium salts to create a series of stable brilliant scarlet red hues that are called “carmine” or “cochineal.” This colorant is used in the manufacture of artificial crab meat, processed cheese, bakery and pastry products, lipsticks, rouge, ice cream, beverages, dairy and other foods as well as in pharmaceuticals.
A recent study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology showed that consuming just a milligram of this food coloring can cause anaphylaxis in some people with insect protein allergies. The researchers found that even though the bugs are crushed and combined with solutions to produce the dye, they still retain protein-aceous material, which causes a direct IgE-mediated response in allergic individuals.
Despite this, the EWG reports that for many people who have no known allergies to insects or their products, there is no particular health risk with this dye. They may choose to use it instead of synthetic dyes such as Red 40, which is made from petroleum distillates and coal tars, which have been linked to some serious health problems like cancer.