Why Carmine Isn’t Vegan

Last week, VegNews announced that millions of cochineal insects will be spared by the Hansen sweet potato – which can be used to impart a fire-engine red color in foods such as gummy bears, cakes, and cereals. In this article I’ll explain more about carmine, also known as E120, and why I avoid it.

Different names for the same product
Carmine, also called cochineal, crimson lake or carmine lake, natural red or E120, is a pigment of a bright-red color obtained from the aluminium salt of carminic acid. Carmine is used to give food, like sweets and yoghurts, but also cosmetics, a red or pink color.

As it is stated as an e-number on labels, we might feel that there’s nothing wrong with it. E-numbers are substances that are added to improve food properties. A substance doesn’t simply get an e-number – there’s a whole process behind it. The most important thing is that the substance is not allowed to be harmful to one’s health. The E-number is, therefore, a guarantee that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has checked the substances and that they can be used safely. The law specifies in which products an addition may be used and how much can be added to a maximum of products.

Carminic acid and how it’s extracted
You might be thinking, “Okay, so what’s the problem with carmine? It’s just another E-number”. The problem is how it is extracted. The pigment is produced from scale insects such as the cochineal scale and certain porphyrophora species (source). In other words: carmine is made from beetles. Only female lice are used; the male lice have wings and live too short, only to fertilize the female lice. The eggs then are also used to extract pigment from; this is usually called carmine extract.

The pigment is produced by drying, crushing, and then boiling the bodies of cochineal beetles to extract carminic acid (source). 70,000 cochineal insects are killed to produce one pound of dye (source). That sure as hell doesn’t sound vegan, does it?

A ‘natural’ product
Carmine is often branded as a ‘natural’ dye and can be found in almost anything. Although I feel like it’s quite misleading, I get why companies are allowed to call carmine a natural product, since no toxic chemicals are used for deriving the pigment. When cosmetics claim to be cruelty-free, natural, or organic, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is carmine-free (source).


Alternatives to carmine
Luckily, this doesn’t mean you have to miss out on your red lipstick or pink dye. There are a lot of natural alternatives to carmine that are vegan friendly. Reds from fruits and vegetables can be used, and as VegNews announced last week, fiery red sweet potatoes can replace carmine in products. There are vegan alternatives out there, which means using bugs for red pigment, in my opinion, shouldn’t be necessary anymore.

Do you try to avoid products containing carmine? Let me know in the comments!

Photos by jakobpuff and Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash

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