What is cochineal extract
Dec 28, 2021

what is cochineal extract

COCHINEAL EXTRACT is a natural dye isolated from cochineal female insects (Dactylopius coccus Costa).

An extract with a high colour strength.

Natural dyeing & textile printing : This extract can be used to dye any fibre previously mordanted with alum and cream of tartar or gallnut. The resulting shades have good light- and washfastnesses. Deep reds, carmine to purple shades depending on the formula.

Fine arts, leisure and decoration : Cochineal can also be used for your fine paints, watercolours and natural inks.

cochineal extract (or carmine)

What is cochineal extract used in

Cochineal goes by different names on food and cosmetic labels: cochineal, carmine, carminic acid, Natural Red 4, or E120. You may be surprised where you find it—it provides color to sausage and artificial crab, as well as pink pastries. Many yogurts and juices use cochineal, and it's common in lipsticks and blushes. It's remarkably stable during cooking, freezing, or in an acid environment, making it perfect for manufacturing.

What contains cochineal extract

Other people do not want to eat cochineal because of ethical or religious concerns (insects are not considered kosher). However, if you are truly concerned about eating or using products containing cochineal, you will have to read the fine print on a lot of products.  Here is a short list of items that may contain cochineal-derived colorant:

Frozen meat and fish (e.g., artificial crab meat)

Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and powdered drink mixes

Yogurts, ice cream and dairy-based drinks

Candy, syrups, popsicles, fillings and chewing gum

Canned fruits including cherries and jams

Dehydrated and canned soups


Some wines and liqueurs (sadly, according to Wikipedia, as of 2006 carmine is no longer used to give the Italian aperitif Campari its distinctive deep red color)

Lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, nail polish, and other cosmetic items

Pills, ointments and syrups used in the pharmaceutical industry

Cochineal Extract or Carmine

Is cochineal extract bad for you

Aside from its role as an allergen, cochineal has no known health risks, although those who keep kosher or choose not to eat animal products will want to keep their distance. In addition to food, cochineal is used as a dye in cosmetics products, including lipstick, and at least one person has reported a severe allergic reaction to a cochineal dye used in a pill coating. [9 Weirdest Allergies]

Cochineal may be made from bugs, but other synthetic red dyes such as Red No. 2 and Red No. 40, which carry far greater health risks, are derived from either coal or petroleum byproducts. Compared with these sources, bugs might sound positively appetizing. 

Pass it on: Unless you're allergic to it, cochineal extract probably isn't a health concern.

Food Facts explores the weird world of the chemicals and nutrients found in our food, and appears on MyHealthNewsDaily on Fridays. 

Cochineal Powder

Cochineal in food

Cochineal is one of the few natural and water-soluble colorants that resist degradation with time. It is the most light- and heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural colorants and is even more stable than some synthetic food colours.

Cochineal it is neither toxic nor known to be carcinogenic. However, the dye can induce an anaphylactic-shock reaction in a small number of people, due to impurities in the preparation, not due to the carminic acid.


Cochineal was already used as a colour by the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America . Cochineal was a commodity of much value, even comparable to gold. Cities send bags of cochineal to the capital Tenochtitlán as a yearly contribute to the emperor. The Spanish conquerors of Central America saw the value of the dye, which produced a much better colour than the dyes used in Europe at the time. The dye, which at the time was mainly used in cosmetics and textiles and to a lesser extend in foods, became very popular in Europe. Roman Catholic Cardinals robes were coloured with cochineal, as were the jackets of the British military. Cochineal was a highly prized product and was regularly traded on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. As its origins were not known to most Europeans, the American colonists bought their cochineal from Europe, instead directly from Mexico ...

In the 19th century the insects were imported and grown on a large scale on the Canary Islands and the Mexican monopoly came to an end. In 1868, the Canary Islands exported six million pounds of cochineal, equivalent to 420.000.000.000 insects....

In addition as a dye for textiles, cochineal became widely used as a food colouring. Cakes, cookies, beverages, jam, jelly, ice cream, sausages, pies, dried fish, yogurt, cider, maraschino cherries and tomato products were brightened with it as were chewing gum, pills and cough drops. Cosmetic rouge was developed with cochineal as the main ingredient. Cochineal is still widely used in cosmetics.

The demand for cochineal fell sharply with the appearance on the market of alizarin crimson and many other artificial (food and textile) dyes discovered in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Trade in cochineal almost totally disappeared in the course of the 20th century, but in recent years it has become commercially valuable again as many producers (and consumers) prefer natural colours over synthetic colours. However, most consumers are unaware that the ‘natural colouring E120' refers to a dye that is derived from an insect. It is thus not suitable for vegetarians and is banned by some religions.


The insects are killed by immersion in hot water (after which they are dried) or by exposure to sunlight, steam, or the heat of an oven. Each method produces a different colour which results in the varied appearance of commercial cochineal. The insects must be dried to about 30 percent of their original body weight before they can be stored without decaying. It takes about 155,000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal.

There are two principal forms of cochineal dye: cochineal extract (E120(ii) ) is a colouring made from the raw dried and pulverised bodies of insects with around 20% carminic acid; and carmine ( E120(i) ) a more purified colouring made from cochineal.

Polish cochineal

Polish cochineal is another dye, which was widely used until the mid 19th century as a textile dye. It was not used as a food dye. Polish cochineal is also derived from an insect, the Margarodes polonicus, found in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.

Cochineal Red

This is the name of an azo dye, E124, which bears no resemblance with cochineal, but produces a similar colour, hence the (confusing) name.

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