Danish-based bioscience company Chr. Hansen has developed an alternative to the insect-based food coloring carmine using potatoes.
The company developed the Hansen sweet potato using selective breeding over the last ten years. The result is a highly-pigmented vegetable which provides the same vibrant red level of color as carmine.
What is Carmine?
Carmine is traditionally made from crushed cochineal beetles, which live on cacti in Latin American countries. They are predominantly farmed in Peru, according to the BBC, and have become a key staple ingredient for many companies in the food industry.
The cochineal’s signature bright red color comes from carminic acid, which “makes up almost a quarter of the bugs’ weight, and deters predation by other insects,” the BBC notes. “The bugs, which are about 5mm or 0.2 inches long, are brushed off the pads of prickly pear cacti. It is the wingless females that are harvested, rather than the flying males.”
According to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, carmine use goes back thousands of years, with both the Incas and Aztecs using beetles as a dye. The museum explains, “[cochineal] was so highly prized that bags of the dried bugs were used as currency or as tribute.”
“The Spaniards took cochineal back to Spain, and during colonial times, cochineal was Mexico’s second-most valuable export after silver,” it notes. “Cochineal was much superior to the red dye used in Europe at that time, and became hugely popular. It was used to dye the cloaks of Roman Catholic cardinals and the ‘redcoats’ used by the British army.”
Nowadays, carmine is still big business. In 2017, Peruvian farmers exported nearly 650 tonnes — around $46.4 million — of carmine.
The Hunt for Vegan Alternatives
Although many companies are reluctant to move away from carmine, there are some brands — such as UK convenience store chain Premier Foods — willing to look for alternatives.
“We use carmine in some of our products because it is natural and uniquely provides a particularly stable range of red and pink colors that do not fade,” a spokesperson for Premier Foods told the BBC. “[But] we continue to look for alternatives, which in addition to being natural, would also be suitable for vegetarians.”
Animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) added, “it reportedly takes up to 70,000 individual insects to produce just 500g of dye, so naturally, it’s a product that compassionate consumers will want to avoid.”
According to Gentle World, the soft-bodied flat beetles are placed into bags once they are brushed from the cacti, these bags are then whisked off to the carmine production plant. The beetles are then either immersed into hot water, exposed to sunlight, steamed or heated. Once the carmine — extracted from the abdomen of the beetle — is dried, it is ground into a powder.
“There’s something very concerning about the fact that we think nothing of crushing insects by the billions every year,” comments Gentle World. “For no reason other than that we like certain things to look a certain way.”
There is hope, as more people are adopting plant-based lifestyles for the planet, the environment, and the animals. PETA continued, “Fortunately, the rapid growth in the number of people following a vegan lifestyle is encouraging more and more companies to develop animal-friendly products.”
Sweet Potato as a Carmine Alternative
Chr. Hansen may have the answer for companies looking for vegan alternatives, with its newly-developed, sweet potato-based bright red substitute.
“Over 10 years ago we discovered a promising pigment in a root vegetables’ tuber, but the plant’s pigment content was on the low side,” said Jakob Dalmose Rasmussen — vice president of commercial development at Chr. Hansen — to Food Navigator. “We took this plant and embarked on a process of selective breeding using traditional, non-GMO methods.”
“The result is a plant-based brilliant red that gives our customers a natural alternative to carmine and synthetic colors,” he continued.
Other synthetic alternatives to carmine do exist, but various drawbacks include an unpleasant aftertaste and restriction to foods with a short shelf life.
Coffee giant Starbucks uses tomato-derived lycopene in its iced coffees and cakes after it received negative backlash for using carmine. The ingredient, however, is neither as long-lasting nor as easy to use as carmine. Dalmose Rasmussen also maintains that the taste of other carmine alternatives is noticeably different.
“Strawberry red is a popular shade for food products — from cakes to confectionery to milkshakes. But until now it has been nearly impossible to make a fire-engine red color with no risk of off-taste without using carmine,” he said. “As consumers move towards vegetarian and vegan food choices, the need for a carmine alternative has become more pressing.”
In comparison to other naturally-derived red food colors previously experimented with — for example those from beetroot or purple carrots — the Hansen sweet potato alternative is light and heat-stable, which makes it ideal for use in baking.
“Beet is a pinkish red pigment with a very low cost-in-use,” said Penille Borre Askorg, the senior manager of global marketing at Chr. Hansen. “But it is not heat and light stable and it is more pinkish. Black carrot is also a more cost-efficient pinkish-red solution, but if there is a need for a bright red stable solution, then black carrot might be too pinkish or dull at higher pH.”
What Foods Currently Use Carmine?
Carmine is present in a number of food products, including red meat. According to Nathalie Pauleau, a category manager at plant-based ingredient company Naturex, it is the most frequently used food coloring in red meat products.
According to Peruvian natural colors company Imbarex, “carmine is used to enhance the natural red color of meat, sausages, and lunch meats elaborated with poultry meat and also meat-flavored condiments commonly used in the daily kitchen.”
The insect-derived food coloring is also used in dairy products, adding color to strawberry red milkshakes and frozen desserts like ice cream, as well as yogurts and smoothies. It’s also used across the confectionery industry, giving red candy its vibrant shade. According to Alternet, carmine is used in everything from jelly beans to Gobstoppers.
Is Carmine in Beauty Products?
Carmine isn’t just added to food products, it’s also lurking in your favorite cosmetics. According to PETA, “you could be smearing the insides of thousands of bugs onto your lips with your favorite red lipstick or onto your cheeks with your favorite blush.”
Often labeled as “cochineal extract” or “natural red 4,” carmine can be added to a variety of beauty and self-care products, including shampoo, red lipstick, and blush. Basically, anything that may have a vibrant red color, you need to watch out for if you’re looking to avoid carmine.
According to Afterglow cosmetics — a vegan-friendly makeup brand which does not use carmine — the ingredient is used “to add color vibrancy, long-wear, and shade intensity.” It notes, “it is also the ‘go-to’ natural dye when cosmetic chemists want to achieve specific cooler ranges of pinks, purples, and reds while avoiding the use of synthetic red, purple, and pink FD&C and Lake dyes.”
Carmine is heavily relied upon across the cosmetics industry. Even brands that promote themselves as eco-friendly and natural can still use carmine in their products.
According to Afterglow, the issue is that most makeup products — like lipsticks — are oil-based, and the pigment of fruits and vegetable dyes — like beets and carrots — only works in water-based solutions. The brand focuses on using natural Iron Oxide in its products to achieve red, pink, and purple shades, however, it does note that avoiding carmine is “an ongoing challenge” for the brand.
How Can You Avoid Carmine Completely, in Food and Cosmetics?
If you want to avoid crushed beetles as a makeup ingredient altogether, Afterglow recommends checking labels thoroughly and choosing the companies you buy from carefully.
“The most straightforward way to avoid carmine is to purchase products from companies that specifically and publicly state that they disclose 100% of the ingredients on the label and know what they are talking about if they claim their cosmetics are vegan,” it notes. “If a product is vegan it should be 100% carmine-free.”
In the food industry, some categories are easier to avoid carmine in than others. If you don’t want to eat insect-dyed meat, there are plenty of plant-based alternatives available. More and more vegan meat products are coming to market all the time, which are completely free of all animal products, including carmine.
If it’s a red beef burger you fancy, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods both create “bleeding” meaty burgers — which look, cook, and taste like beef — but are made with pea protein. The red shade comes from beetroot, according to the brands.
In the confectionery industry, it’s a little harder to find gelatin (derived from animal bones) and carmine-free products. However, vegan sweets are becoming easier to come by. Candy Kittens makes pink vegan-friendly gummy candies, and the Natural Confectionery offers plant-based Jelly Snakes.