Between the end of the Mayan calendar and the release of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” the year 2012 involved much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Everyone seemed poised for the apocalypse—so it makes sense that consumers panicked when headlines revealed that Starbucks’ Strawberry Frappuccinos were dyed with crushed-up bugs. Thus began the frenzy over carmine, a centuries-old red dye used in a number of food products. And, yes, carmine is technically made from insects—but it’s easier to avoid than alarmist headlines suggest. And if you can’t avoid it, it’s actually less harmful than a lot of alternatives.
If you’ve ever enjoyed processed foods with a pink, purple, or reddish hue, you’ve probably eaten carmine. It’s a popular dye used in foods like popsicles or candy; it’s also used in cosmetic products like some lipsticks. The dye gets its vibrant hue from the cochineal insect, a tiny bug that lives on the pads of prickly pear cacti across Peru and the Canary Islands. After being brushed off the cacti, the insects are sun-dried, crushed, and dunked in an acidic alcohol solution. That solution produces carminic acid, the bright red pigment used in carmine dye. So, no, you’re not going to find a stray thorax in your red Skittles; nonetheless, some consumers have concerns that carmine dye is unsafe.
Like any other dye, carmine poses some risk as an allergen. Other than that, it poses no known health risk—unlike other synthetic red dyes such as Red No. 2, which is illegal in the U.S. but abundant in the European Union. However, it’s easy to see why carmine poses a problem for vegan consumers (per PETA, it takes up to 70,000 individual insects to produce just 500g of dye) or individuals who keep kosher.
If you’d prefer to avoid carmine dye, you can do so with relative ease. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration required carmine and cochineal extract to be explicitly identified in U.S. ingredient lists. Just check your labels for either carmine, cochineal extract, or “natural red 4.” If you don’t see those ingredients, you’re in the clear.
(Quick note here: many consumers confuse “natural red 4" with “Red 40,” but the latter is far more common—and is decidedly not an animal product.)
It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of food manufacturers using carmine alternatives to dye their products. Remember that Starbucks snafu I mentioned at the beginning of this article? It prompted the brand to switch from carmine to lycopene, a tomato-based extract. Baking brands like Wilton also offer a wide array of carmine-free goods like sprinkles.
Ultimately, you’ll be fine if you down some carmine—but if you’d rather not, you’ve got options.