Cochineal And Carmine

Cactus plantation to raise the cochineal, an insect from which a red pigment is extracted.
Cactus plantation to raise the cochineal, an insect from which a red pigment is extracted. Photo by Patricio Hidalgo, c/o

Carminic acid is the colour extracted from the dried female coccid insect Dactylopius coccus costa (Coccus cacti L.).

Carmine is the aluminium chelate of carminic acid. Cochineal describes the dried insects and also the colour derived from them. The colour  has many names depending on the insect sources – Armenia red, kermes, Polish cochineal, lac dye and American cochineal. The Armenian and Polish cochineals are derived from Porphyrophora insect species.

Cochineal Red A is a synthetic colour and is known as Ponceau 4R and should not be confused with natural colours.

The colour was introduced to Europe following the Spanish conquest of South America. To all intents and purposes, American cochineal is the only viable commercial source available globally. There are some instances of Lac dye being used which comes from Laccifera lacca which is sourced from the Far East.

In labelling terms, carmine is also known as natural red 4, C.I. 75470 or E120

Cochineal has been used for millenia. The colour is extracted from a number of coccid insects which are only found on the prickly pear which originally grew in Peru and other parts of South America. Some of it is now extracted from sources in the Canary islands and its not unusual to see farms on the island of Lanzarote.

Uses Of Carmine And Cochineal

Carmine is often added to food products including yogurts, confectionary and candy, various juices and in some cases snacks such as crisps and tofu for example. Surimi crab sticks are classic examples where carmine will be found. It is not a colour used in vegetarian or vegan foods.

Bleeding of carmine on crab sticks often occurs. For many consumers this is perceived as an adulterated product. The use of polyglycerol polyricinoleic acid (PGPR) is a major means to block carmine bleeding, but it is not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for surimi crab stick. Calcium is also an effective antibleeding agent and the type of compounds used are calcium chloride, calcium acetate, calcium hydroxide, calcium citrate, tricalcium phosphate and calcium lactate. The order represents the degree of success of stopping colour bleeding (Poowakanjana and Park, 2009).

In some cases carmine and annatto are combined in yoghurt as a replacement for Allura Red or as a natural colour to beetroot red.


Poowakanjana, S., Park, J.W. (2009) Stabilization of carmine colorant in crab stick. 2009 IFT Annuakl Meeting, Abstract June 6-9, Anaheim. Calif. CA. USA.

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