Carmine is literally made from dried, ground-up red beetles, and its coloring (bright red) is used in yogurt, juice drinks, candies, and a long list of other products, including many "natural" products.
It's not that these red beetles are dangerous. Except for a few individuals who suffer severe allergic reactions to the beetles, most people do just fine eating carmine. Beetles are probably good for you, just like ants. High in protein, low in fat... you get the picture.
But there's a grossness factor that probably explains why products using this ingredient list "carmine" instead of "powdered red beetles" on the label. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has even petitioned the FDA to ban carmine(1), or, at the very least, require its clear labeling. The CSPI cites a study conducted by the doctors at the University of Michigan (headed by Dr. Baldwin, University of Michigan Medical Center) that demonstrated carmine can cause a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis -- a condition that can put a person into shock and require hospitalization. But these reactions are extremely rare.
It's no surprise, then, that consumers purchase food products with vibrant colors. Carmine adds this vibrancy and color to foods, making them more appealing to consumers. In other words, if it looks good, we are more apt to buy it.
There are also technical reasons why carmine is a useful food coloring. If you're curious about what the food manufacturers say about carmine, read: http://www.foodproductdesign.com/archive/1998/0398AP.html
"The insects are carefully brushed from the cacti... and placed into bags. The bags are taken to the production plant and there, the insects are then killed by immersion in hot water or by exposure to sunlight, steam or the heat of an oven. It is to be noted that the variance in appearance of commercial cochineal is caused by the different methods used during this process. It takes about 70,000 insects to make one pound (454 gm) of cochineal. The body of one coccineal is said to contain between 18-20% of carminic acid.
The part of the insect that contains the most carmine is the abdomen that houses the fertilized eggs of the coccineal. Once dried, a process begins whereby the abdomens and fertilized eggs are separated from the rest of the anatomical parts. These are then ground into a powder and cooked at temperatures in excess of 212? F (100? C) to extract the maximum amount of color. This cooked solution is filtered and through special processes that cause all carmine particles to precipitate to the bottom of the cooking container. The liquid is removed and the bottom of the container is left with pure carmine."
Yum. Not exactly what you had in mind when you were eating yogurt, was it? The most appetizing part of this description has to be, "...the abdomens and fertilized eggs are separated from the rest of the anatomical parts..."
Would you rather be eating a pigment created by insects, or one derived through the refining of fossil fuels? Personally, I'd rather eat the insect pigment.
And although there are no studies that demonstrate health benefits of carmine, I wouldn't be surprised to hear of some in the coming years.
There's also another bonus: the color stands up under fluorescent lighting. Carmine (and most other food colorings) tend to fade under fluorescent lights, reducing their shelf life.
Plus, we all know just how powerful grape skins are at lowering LDL cholesterol and promoting cardiovascular health. A food coloring ingredient made from grape skins would, if widely consumed, help protect the health of the public. It would probably give you all the health benefits of drinking wine, but without the alcohol.
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This is especially true when ingredients are derived from living creatures. Whether it's beetles, cows or kangaroos, I want to know what I'm eating, don't you? After all, what good are the FDA's food labeling requirement if ingredients are cloaked in a secret food-industry code that nobody else really understands? It's just like calling MSG "yeast extract," which is a labeling deception widely used by makers of "natural" or vegetarian foods.
As with most food-labeling issues, awareness is the ultimate answer. If enough people become aware of the carmine issue, and sufficient pressure is put on the food manufacturers and the FDA, something will probably change.
At the same time, I would much rather eat carmine than artificial food colorings. With the beetles, at least the color comes from nature, not a chemical plant. In fact, South American cultures (the Aztecs and Incas, namely) have used carmine as coloring for thousands of years (although it's not clear whether they used it in foods). Technically speaking, you could almost call carmine a "natural" product.
Keep your eyes open for yogurt with a label that reads, "colored with all-natural, organic ground-up red beetles from Peru!"