How Is the Food Coloring Carmine Made?

By Contributing Writer

Carmine Basics

Opuntia ficus-indica
credit: Karol Kozlowski/iStock/Getty Images
Prickly pear cactus

A red food coloring, carmine is added to everything from fruit juices to gelatins and candies, to heighten the red color and make the food more appealing. Carmine doesn't add any flavor or nutritional value to foods. What you may not know is that carmine comes from beetles. The beetles are harvested specifically to extract the carminic acid that makes up the familiar red food coloring. The female cochineal beetles (Dactylopius coccus) live on opuntia cactuses and they're harvested after their eggs have been fertilized. Most carmine food coloring comes from Peru and the Canary Islands.


The harvesting process begins when the beetles are taken from the cactuses where they are grown and placed in bags. The bags are taken to the production facility that manufactures the cochineal -- the material that makes the actual carminic acid from which the dye is created. There they are killed in various processes that either involve immersing them in hot water or exposing them to heat, such as sunlight, steam or oven heat. It can take 70,000 insects make 1 pound of cochineal.


The process in which the dyes are made begins after the beetles are dried. The abdomens and fertilized eggs of the beetles, which contain the most carminic acid, are removed from the bodies. The abdomens and eggs are ground down into a fine powder, which is then baked in ovens. The baking process breaks down the particles in the ground powder from which the actual color of the carminic acid is distilled. The particles of carmine are then separated from the baked solution through a filtering process. The solution is placed in a cooking container. The particles of carmine fall to the bottom of the container, creating two layers -- liquid and carmine. Once the liquid is removed from the container, the extracted carmine is left behind. This is the purest form of carmine, which is then used to create the food coloring dye.