Carmines (E120)

Carmines can be found in foods under the code E120 and also under the names cochineal or carminic acid.

This substance is of natural origin, commercially mined mainly in South America, Spain, Algeria, Peru and the Canary Islands. In this category of nutritional supplements, carmine dye is the most persistent, the most harmless, and due to the nature of its extraction, the most expensive. However, it is often used in higher quality foods, delicatessen, and the cosmetics and chemical industries to produce rich reds, oranges, or purples.

The dye appears as a red or dark red powder. Sometimes it is released in the form of a liquid solution, which is called cochineal.

Synthesis of dye E120, features of its chemical properties

The raw material used for the extraction of carmine is insects, namely female cochineal aphids, most often found on cacti of the Opuntia genus. Cacti have an easily recognizable “appearance” - they are distinguished by fleshy flat stems that look like flattened cakes. Aphids are sometimes specially bred on these plants, so that later they can harvest and synthesize a dye from an insect. Females reach a size of about 3 mm in length, that is, no more than a match head, and males grow about 1.5-2 times smaller. Despite such tiny parameters, this small aphid is recognized by farmers as one of the most dangerous and difficult pests. When meeting with her, the owners are only pleased that she can be used to obtain a dye.

Insects are removed from the stems of the cactus with a special brush, after which they are treated with high temperatures or acetic acid. The resulting mass of dead insects is dried, crushed and reacted with ammonium hydroxide or sodium salt of carbonic acid. The resulting product is filtered and brought to a powder state.

The collection of female aphids occurs at the time of the start of laying eggs: it is at this time that carmine collects in the abdomen and in the eggs themselves, due to which the insects acquire a bright red color. For 7 months, the collection can occur approximately 2-3 times.

Such processing requires a huge number of insects, as well as significant labor costs. That is why carmine is an expensive and “elite” coloring agent.

The dye is resistant to acids and alkalis, resistant to light and temperatures, and readily soluble in water and ethanol.

The following designations can be found in the compositions of products:

  • E120i - pure dye;
  • Е120ii – extract.

In different environments, the substance behaves differently: in an acidic environment it gives an orange color, in a neutral one - red, and in an alkaline one - purple.

The history of the appearance of the substance and its industrial use

The coloring properties of cochineal aphids were known in the territory of modern Mexico as early as the 4th-5th century AD. When the Spanish conquerors arrived on the mainland, they did not disregard the red powder, which can give a bright color to everything it comes into contact with. The Spaniards brought it to Europe. British military uniforms of scarlet color were dyed with carmine. In the 14th and 15th centuries, carmine was used as an exchange currency along with precious metals, and from the 17th to the 19th century, the dye became the most popular Mexican export after silver and gold.

In the second half of the 19th century, the industry began to gradually switch to synthetic additives and dyes, so the popularity of carmine faded a bit. Substances obtained in the process of chemical reactions with artificial raw materials were cheaper and considered more effective, and the issue of safety at that time was not of much interest to manufacturers.

Already after 1970, when as a result of detailed studies it was found that many artificial food additives are dangerous and harm human health, the era of a smooth transition back to natural dyes began. Of course, synthetic substances are still in use in the food industry, but in smaller volumes than before the 70s of the last century.

Since the 1990s, the dye has been mass-produced for use in food production. To date, the largest proportion of carmine worldwide is mined in Peru.

The use of the dye E120

The two main industries in which carmine is indispensable are cosmetic and food. Lipsticks, blush, lip shadows and glosses, shower gels, bath foams, mascaras, toothpastes, detergents and cleaners often contain E120.

In addition, the dye carmine is used in the manufacture of such products:

  • some types of cheese;
  • breakfast cereals;
  • jams, jellies, marmalades, sweets, ice cream, desserts, creams, biscuit cakes;
  • alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages;
  • glazed and canned fruits, processed vegetable products;
  • meat and fish products: minced meat, semi-finished products, canned food;
  • baked goods;
  • ​​
  • sauces, seasonings, spices, ketchups.

The substance is also used in Easter egg paint.

This additive, with its coloring property, has been popular in the textile industry, and has been used to give rich red hues to fabrics, yarns, threads, and carpets since the 10th or 11th century. Carmine has been added to paints before, but today it is found in high-quality art paints like Leningrad or White Nights.

Under laboratory conditions, carmine is used to stain histological preparations for further examination under a microscope.

Restrictions on the use of the E120 dye, its safety for humans

Considering the natural origin of the substance, after experiments on laboratory animals and with the participation of people, chemists, biologists and technologists came to the conclusion that it is safe for humans.

In the regulatory documents governing the use of food additives in food production in the European Union and the Customs Union, the additive is assigned a low level of danger. In those concentrations in which the dye is usually added to food, it does not cause any disorders and diseases. To date, there is no information about the relationship of substance use and the occurrence of cancer, infertility or gene mutations. No toxic properties were found in carmine either.

The only concern may be that, in rare cases, the food additive E120 can cause allergic reactions in people who have particular food allergies. You should also limit its use to children and the elderly.

In Russia, Ukraine, the countries of the European Union, the USA and Canada, the substance is allowed for use in the manufacture of food products.

The world community, heads of state, international organizations and research scientists have been pointing out for several decades that food additives derived from natural raw materials are more harmless to human health than completely synthetic substances that generally not found in nature. Therefore, today carmine can be found in many foods that are distinguished by a red color. Desserts, semi-finished products, meat and fish, fruits are processed with it, it is added to drinks. The coloring properties of this substance make it popular in the production of cosmetics, paints, fabrics. Of course, it is more expensive than artificial counterparts due to the complex method of extraction. However, for example, European manufacturers increasingly prefer it, thereby making their products safer for humans.

  1. Evaluation of some food additives and contaminants. 41 report of the joint FAO / WHO experts on food additives, Geneva, - M: "Medicine", 1994 - 72 p.