Wondering where the red color of your sports drink comes from? Chances are it comes straight from crushed insects and their eggs. This article reveals how the red carmine color is produced and what are its potential health risks; you will also learn how to recognize this weird food additive on the labels and how to avoid it in your products.


What is carmine?

Carmine is a red color made from scale insects and used in paints, personal care products, foods, and beverages. The red pigment in carmine comes from the aluminum salt of carminic acid. In nature, the best source of carminic acid is the cochineal, a scale insect that lives on South American cacti. That’s why carmine is also called cochineal extract. Native people from Peru and other Latin countries have used this color for centuries on their skin, clothes, and paintings. When Europeans discovered carmine,  it became a very valuable trading good. Peruvian people are still the leading exporters. To produce carmine color, they collect huge amounts of cochineal bugs, crush them, cook them in the mixture of chemicals and filter the solution. Then they add aluminum to create a deep-red pigment with carminic acid. They process around 70 000 insects for one pound of carmine color.

Carmine is present in a variety of paints, inks, and cosmetics. Scientists also use carmine as a staining agent. It is cheap and gives a vivid red color with great stability. Carmine is great for your paintings or cosmetic products, but consuming foods and drinks with the color from crushed bugs is something else.

Are we consuming carmine color?

Actually, carmine is present in many foods, beverages, and medications. It is a common color in products like yogurt, candies, cakes, and smoothies. Many drugs, including pills and liquids, contain carmine. The beverage industry also uses carmine color in soft and energy drinks, alcoholic beverages and even sports drinks. The intense red color of these items looks appealing and attracts consumers but often masks poor quality.

Beware when looking for this color in the ingredients list. Other names for carmine on nutritional labels are cochineal, crimson lake, natural red 4, and C.I. 75470. The European Union labels carmine as E120 food additive. Up until 2009, manufacturers could just name it “color”, but now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates a specific label “carmine” or “cochineal extract” (1). The European Union followed with the same measure in 2015, requiring this description next to the E120 code (2). Proper labeling of this additive is essential to help customers make better-informed choices.

Is carmine color bad for you?

The leading health authorities approved the consumption of carmine, but the evidence suggests some serious side effects; it can even threaten your life if you have a carmine allergy. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirms the acceptable daily intake of E120 carmine- 5mg/kg- but states they lack studies for evaluation (2). People have suffered severe allergic reactions and even anaphylactic shock -a potentially fatal condition- after consuming products with carmine color (3).

The Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) is also warning about this danger of carmine. They demand strict labeling of this additive, with the emphasis on its origin and allergenic potential (4).  The CSPI founder, Michael Jacobson asked: “Why tolerate a food coloring that sends a couple hundred people to emergency rooms each year, yet its only purpose is cosmetic?”

One study has confirmed that carmine can worsen the respiratory and food allergies and hurt people with asthma (5). Researchers identified carmine/cochineal red as the most problematic allergen that can trigger oral health issues (6). Besides insect parts, carmine manufacturers use some nasty chemicals like ammonia in the production process.  They also add aluminum- a known neurotoxin (7) – to generate the final product. This could explain following side effects of carmine: it can impair neurological and reproductive functions (8).

Ethical aspects of consuming carmine color

Given that carmine color is made from insects, some people may want to avoid it. Farmers collect huge amounts of cochineal bugs and kill them by cooking or sun-drying; parts of those insects end up in our bodies eventually. Vegans are against exploiting and consuming animals in any way, so they should definitely be aware of the carmine color production process. The use of insects in food is against Halal and Kosher standards; if you are following any of these food standards, watch out for the carmine color lurking in many items.

Carmine color healthy alternatives

As you can see, there are many reasons to avoid this food additive. Many companies have already replaced it with safer and healthier alternatives. Lycopene is a tomato-based extract that gives natural red color; it is completely safe and even offers some important health benefits (9). Grape skin extract and beet juice are also great natural sources of red color.

Make sure to read the labels carefully and detect carmine in sports drinks and other products. Always opt for brands that use healthy natural ingredients and avoid problematic additives like carmine. Strong natural colors indicate the nutritional value and freshness of a product. When sports drink is artificially colored, it tricks your senses and makes you think it is healthy and nourishing. Often times the color hides other unhealthy additives and poor ingredients. Flow Drinks have a  natural, vegan-friendly formulation; organic Finnish berries color the drinks vividly and have strong antioxidant activity.



  1. gov. (2017). Guidance for Industry: Cochineal Extract and Carmine: Declaration by Name on the Label of All Foods and Cosmetic Products That Contain These Color Additives; Small Entity Compliance Guide. [online] Available at: https://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/ColorAdditives/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/ucm153038.htm
  2. europa.eu. (2017). Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of cochineal, carminic acid, carmines (E 120) as a food additive | European Food Safety Authority. [online] Available at: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/4288
  3. org. (2017). COCHINEAL EXTRACT, CARMINE, AND CARMINIC ACID. [online] Available at: http://www.inchem.org/documents/jecfa/jecmono/v46je03.htm
  4. org. (2017). CSPI Says Food Dyes Pose Rainbow of Risks | Center for Science in the Public Interest. [online] Available at: https://cspinet.org/new/201006291.html
  5. Tabar AI, et al. (2017). Asthma and allergy due to carmine dye. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13679965
  6. Gülseren D, et al. (2017). Is there a role of food additives in recurrent aphthous stomatitis? A prospective study with patch testing. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28035659
  7. Shaw, CA et al. (2017). Aluminum in the central nervous system (CNS): toxicity in humans and animals, vaccine adjuvants, and autoimmunity. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23609067
  8. T. et al. (1995). Reproductive and Neurobehavioral Effects of Cochineal Administered To Mice in the DietToxicology and Industrial Health –Journals.sagepub.com. [online] Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/074823379501100101
  9. Miller EC, et al. (2017). Tomato products, lycopene, and prostate cancer risk. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12109359

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