For years, carmine was listed on ingredient lists as "artificial coloring." Finally, the Center for Science In the Public Interest (CSPI) asked the US Food and Drug Association (FDA) to require that all products containing cochineal state on the label that it is insect-based and may cause allergic reactions or anaphylactic shock. Of course, the food industries were opposed to printing that on their products. Eventually, the FDA decided to oblige the companies to include the word "carmine" on the label -- but didn't mention the health or vegetarian aspects of the pigment. Restaurants are not required to admit to using the dye unless a customer asks.
Recently, a lady from South Carolina began a petition on Change.org asking Starbucks Coffee to quit using carmine in their products. After the appeal amassed over 6,000 names, Starbucks agreed to switch to the vegan dye lycopene, derived from tomatoes.
To produce carmine, thousands of cochineal beetles are taken to factories, where they are dried by boiling, baking, or exposure to steam or sunlight. 70,000 beetles are killed to make one pound of carmine. The fertilized eggs and female abdomens are then ground up and cooked, to produce more color.
Several species of scale beetle yield carmine. Historically, the dye was harvested in both the Old World and the New. Aztecs and Incas harvested cochineal beetles, which are found on cacti in Central and South America. To survive in the deserts, the insects secrete a white wax which serves as a sunblock. The Native Americans sometimes used the creatures as currency, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma II levied a tax to be paid in barrels of beetles.
Mediterranean ancients used similar kermes beetles, which lived on red oaks. In fact, the word "crimson" derives from the kermes insects. Jars of them have been found in Neolithic burial sites. In the Middle Ages, silk dyed with kermes was extremely popular among the upper classes. As the dried eggs looked like particles of wheat or sand, they were known as grain, hence the expressions "dyed in the grain" and "full grain."
However, after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, carmine cochineal replaced carmine kermes, which was weaker and more expensive. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carmine remained in use. According to an article, Beneficial Scale?, in the South Florida Cactus and Succulent Society's magazine, the American colonists were angered by the steep prices of cochineal as well as tea.
The most common artificial crimson dye is Red #40, also called FD & C Red 40 or Allura Red AC, which is derived from petroleum. After the scarlet dye Amaranth, a carcinogen, was banned 1970s, Red #40 replaced it. More currently, Red #3 was proven to cause cancer in rats. Although the FDA has not banned it, its use is decreasing. However, as an unnatural colorant, Red 40 also has potential negative effects, including cancer, allergies, asthma, migraines and other health problems.
Some vegetarians who argue against carmine are deemed advocates of chemical colorants. However, many natural ruby dyes, found in beets, annattos, tomatoes, or paprika, are vegan. Hopefully, many companies will follow Starbucks in switching from cochineal to a healthy alternative.