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Carmine - Overview

For centuries, the magenta pigment extracted from the female cochineal insect has been an important natural dye. Archaeologists have identified 1,800-year-old cloth dyed with cochineal in caves in the Judean desert. The Mayan and Incan Indians are believed to have used cochineal extracts for centuries before actively cultivating the bug for its coloring value.

Cortez discovered that the Aztecs used cochineal when he arrived in the New World in 1518. By the end of the 16th century, as much as 500,000 pounds of cochineal were shipped from Mexico to Spain each year, where it was used in rouge, lipstick and eye makeup. The cargo manifests from a Spanish galleon, which sank near Cuba in the 16th century, showed the ship contained a cargo of cochineal with a higher value than that of New World gold. Around 1820, cochineal was introduced to Guatemala from Mexico. A Guatemalan is said to have taken cochineal to the Canary Islands, where it became an extremely important product. The pigment was used extensively to dye textiles and to produce lake pigments until synthetics were introduced in the latter part of the 19th century. It re-emerged in the 1980s as the most stable of all natural food, drug and cosmetic colors.

Source and Processing

Carmine color originates from dried female insects called cochineal ((Dactylopius coccus costa)(coccus Cacti L)). The Canary Islands and Peru are the two main regions where the insects are grown, with Peru being the larger producer. Once a cottage industry, cochineal is now often harvested at plantations where prickly pear cactus are grown under controlled conditions. Female cochineal - which outnumber the males 200 to 1 - are brushed from the cacti and air-dried in the sun. After drying, they are bagged and delivered to central markets for sale to Carmine producers.

The dried cochineal, which contains 17 to 24 percent carminic acid, is subjected to a carefully controlled extraction process in an acidic, aqueous, alcoholic solution. This solution of carminic acid is then precipitated (laked) on a substratum of aluminum hydrate using aluminum and calcium cations as precipitants. The resulting lake is called Carmine. Approximately 70,000 insects are needed to make one pound of 50 percent Carminic acid lake.

Carmine is produced as a lake pigment in modern food-grade facilities in Peru, England, Germany, France, Belgium and the U.S. Cochineal, harvested in the Canary Islands, is used primarily to provide color for the famous Italian aperitif, Campari.

Regulatory Status

Carmine is now permanently listed for foods, drugs and cosmetics in the U.S., and is exempt from certification under the following sections of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR):

  • 21CFR 73.100 Foods
  • 21CFR 73.1100 Drugs
  • 21CFR 73.2087 Cosmetics

In the world marketplace, it may also be identified as:

  • CI #75470 - CI Natural Red #4
  • CAS #1390-65-4 - Carmine
  • CAS #1260-17-9 - Cochineal Extract
  • EU: #E120 - Carmine

The specification under CFR 73.100 is as follows:

  • Volatile Matter (135°C for three hours) - NMT 20%
  • Ash - NMT 12%
  • Lead (as Pb) - NMT 10 ppm
  • Arsenic (as AS) - NMT 1 ppm
  • Carminic Acid - NLT 50%
  • Salmonella - None detected

Consult the nearest Color Group Service Laboratory for information on specifications for commerce outside the U.S.

Chemical/Physical Properties

Carmine is among the most stable of all food, drug and cosmetic colors. This property is primarily the result of the anthraquinone structure of carminic acid. Other natural and synthetic dyes containing the anthraquinone structure include the naturally occurring non-food colors, Alizarin Red and Madder Red, and the D&C synthetic dyes, Green 5, Green 6, Violet 2 and External D&C Violet 2. Carmine's solubility can be characterized as:

  • Slightly soluble in cold water
  • Soluble in mineral acids
  • Insoluble in ether
  • Insoluble in oils and fats
  • Freely soluble in alkali
  • Insoluble in alcohol
  • Insoluble in organic solvents

Carminic acid, when isolated, has the following properties:

  • Dark reddish-brown to bright red powder
  • Crystallizes from water as bright red crystals, which darken at 130°C and decompose at 250°C
  • Freely soluble in water, alcohol, ether, concentrated acids and alkali hydroxides
  • Insoluble in benzene and chloroform
  • Characteristically orange at pH's <4.0, and violet at pH 6.2
  • Wavelengths of maximum absorbance are 494 mm in acidic conditions and 520 mm and 555 mm in alkaline conditions


In the 1980s, Carmine lake gained importance as a possible replacement for FD&C Red 3 and as a stable source of natural colors for food, drug and cosmetic products. It is the only organic pigment presently permitted for use in the eye area within the U.S. It is one of few colors that hold up in permanent wave products. Regulations place no limitations on the amount of Carmine permitted in foods, drugs or cosmetics. For practical purposes, however, its use is likely to be economically self-limiting and should be used in accordance with good manufacturing practice. While, as of this writing, manufacturers have not achieved universal approval as a suitable color for Kosher applications, new forms of useful Carmine continue to find their way to the marketplace.

The Color Group Difference

The Color Group maintains the largest group of food-, drug- and cosmetic-color chemists - and the widest selection of Carmine shades - in the industry. Our highly experienced technical service chemists, food scientists and technicians solve the industry's toughest application problems. Our achievements include:

  • An acid-stable cochineal extract for specific market applications such as retorted products, fruit-based beverages and fruit fillings;
  • Red, orange, purple and brown natural color blends containing Carmine for tableting applications;
  • Several ready-to-use, highly stable alkaline liquid Carmines including B-Rose Liquid;
  • A purple shade of Carmine for compressed tablets and confections;
  • Water soluble powder called Hydrosoluble Carmine expands the applicability of Carmine in dry mix products;
  • Blends of Carmine with certified colors;
  • Carmine dispersed in our Spectracoat dispersions in a variety of edible carriers;
  • Blends of Carmine with pearlescent materials or other extenders such as talc, which reduce incoming quality control steps.

Natural Colors

Annatto Extract
Annatto Ultrabix™
Aronia / Redfruit
Beet Juice Colors
Beta APO 8 Carotenal
Black Currant
Burnt Sugar
Carbo Medicinalis
Carmine / ß-Carotene
Carmine Blue
Carminic Acid
Cochineal Extract
Mixed Carotenoids
Paprika Extract
Paprika Oleoresin
Stinging Nettle
Titanium Dioxide