Carmine is a natural red dye that is commonly used in foods and cosmetics. The colorant is made from the crushed bodies of cochineal insects. It can also be called cochineal extract, crimson lake, ci-156, red carminic acid and natural red 4.

When Spanish conquistadores began their conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century they were struck by the Aztec fabrics and face paint that had a deeper hue than any they had seen before. The secret to the vibrant colors turned out to be a berry-like pigment extracted from the scale insects of the cochineal family (Dactylopius coccus) that live as parasites on nopal cacti in tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico. The color was so popular that extensive nopal cactus plantations were established to meet the demand.

The colorant is available in a variety of shades, tints and tones, including brilliant true red. It is stable to heat, light and oxidation. It does degrade in alkaline solutions and reacts with Fe ions to produce violet. Food technologists can prevent this degradation by treating the product with ferrous sulfate prior to use.

Although carmine is considered safe to consume for the majority of people, some consumers experience an allergic reaction to the substance. Because of these concerns, many natural grocers, such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, prohibit the use of products containing the colorant. In addition, some vegetarians and vegans object to the fact that the dye is derived from an insect.

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