Is Carmine Cruelty-Free and Vegan? (The Truth revealed)

June 22, 2022

As cruelty-free advocates, we were shocked when we discovered what carmine is, how it’s made and how many products it’s in. Vegans will be gobsmacked! So please STOP before you buy anything – whether it’s a lipstick or a strawberry milkshake. We’ve got some facts to share.

Carmine is not vegan as it’s derived from cochineal insects. Brands that use carmine in their products often consider themselves cruelty-free since no animal testing occurs in the manufacturing process, even though carmine is produced by crushing beetles.

Although carmine is not cruelty-free or vegan, in this article, we help you find the best alternatives (some exciting new options coming soon).

We show you which products are more likely to contain carmine so you can avoid them (strawberry yogurt is mostly a no-no).

We even give you alternative names that brands use to hide the fact that they are using carmine. Lastly, we share some controversies and ways to avoid this cruel ingredient altogether.

Is Carmine Cruelty-Free?

Carmine Pigment Powder

Technically carmine is “cruelty-free” because no animal testing is involved in its production process. But would you really consider killing thousands of insects a cruelty-free practice? We don't.

That's why looking at this technical definition is not good enough. We looked at the practice as a whole, and we urge you not to villainize it just yet.

Carmine's history is rich and has served a vast cultural purpose. Let's dive into the good stuff and then answer the question – is this practice still necessary?

What is Carmine?

Carmine is a red pigment or dye used to manufacture many things like crimson ink, food dye, cosmetics, medication, paints, and more.

Carmine is entirely natural as it’s derived from carminic acid. This bright chemical compound comes from the female cochineal insect.

Yup – you heard us right. Carmine comes from bugs, and it’s used all the time. This means that you’ve probably smudged it on your face and had it in your strawberry yogurt a couple of times too!

But here’s the thing, people have been using carmine for centuries. The practice of farming cochineal insects was discovered in Mexico during the Spanish conquest (in the 1500s), but it's actually been around since 900 BC. 

But to understand why we consider this practice cruel, you need to consider how it’s made too. Trust us – it’s about more than squishing one or two bugs.

How is Carmine Made?

Carmine comes from the female cochineal insect. These scaled creatures are pretty small and might not look red to the naked eye – but squishing one will release a flood of crimson dye into your hands.

You’ll find female cochineal insects clustered together on prickly-pear cactuses as they live off the plants’ nutrients.

While crushing a cochineal insect can be quite a bloody sight (it’s meant to ward off predators), it’s not a practical way to extract the dye. So the various indigenous groups of South America developed more effective ways to get the job done and these practices are still used today.

Most carmine farms these days are found in Peru. The country holds about 80% of cochineal farming production, although you can find them across South America.

A glimpse into their world will open your eyes to individual farmers who painstakingly harvest each little insect by hand.   

After the harvest, farmers kill and dry the bugs by putting them in hot water and exposing them to sunlight, steam, or dry heat (e.g., in an oven).

They then crush all the cochineal insects into a powder as it's not only a better way to control the pigments’ color, but also to transport it safely. 

It takes a shocking 70,000 insects to make one kilogram of dye. 

This begs the question, is the global demand for carmine still warranted? Can’t we avoid it? And why hasn’t it been replaced with something less cruel?

Can Carmine Be Vegan?

Carmine is not vegan. It cannot be considered vegan under any circumstance as it comes from the crushed shells of insects.

Veganism is the purest form of vegetarianism because not only do they not eat meat, but they don't use any animal products.

Luckily certain non-vegan products can be considered cruelty-free – but it's worth doing your research first. Here are some common examples you might want to read up on:

Vegans feel that using animal by-products is cruel because it’s forcing the animal to produce for human consumption and is usually done under duress.

So yeah – killing bugs is not a very vegan thing to do. But what’s the alternative? Are we all rubbing beet juice on our lips from now on?

Luckily some incredible research has gone into finding practical alternatives.

What Are Vegan Alternatives to Carmine?

Before we give you this list of alternatives, we need to clarify that just because an ingredient is technically “vegan” doesn’t make it better for you or the environment. A good example is potato chips!

Here are all the vegan red dye alternatives we can share with you.

  • Red dye 40 is the most common synthetic red dye used today. It’s considered vegan and safe by FDA standards. However, there are a few things you should know about:
  • It’s made from petroleum by-products or tar – so it cannot be good for you or the planet. Many lurking studies suggest that it could trigger numerous health issues.
  • It’s NOT cruelty-free! Yup – synthetic colors are routinely tested on animals in really inhumane ways.

    Some other commonly used red dye pigments used include the numbers: 6, 7, 30, 31, 33, 34, 36
  • You might see them labeled as "red lake", "D&C" or "red no." on product labels. (For example: red lake 30, or D&C 7). 
  • Lycopene is a fantastic, natural vegan alternative to carmine. This compound is naturally found in fruits or veg like tomatoes, papaya, or watermelon, giving them that bright red/pink hue.

    Beyond using this color to treat foods, it can also be used in cosmetics. And compared to synthetic dyes, natural ones are ideal because they’re better for the environment and less toxic for you.

    Other common naturally extracted red dyes used for food, clothes, and cosmetics include:
  • Beta-carotene: commonly found in carrots, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes
  • Annatto: extracted from the seeds of the Achiote tree native to South America
  • Capsanthin: found in paprika
  • Capsorubin: found in red bell peppers
  • Anthocyanins: extracted from fruits and vegetables like beets.
  • Fermented cochineal: is a vegan-friendly alternative to carmine that scientists are busy developing as we speak.

    Currently, scientists are experimenting with fermenting plant-based enzymes to generate carminic acid, and the primary findings are positive. This means that in a few years – we might be able to get vegan carmine on an industrial scale.

    Researchers successfully achieved this in 2003 with squalene (a skincare ingredient that initially came from sharks). 

    These scientists went to make the most incredible vegan skincare range called Biossance.  

When it comes to beauty, in particular, many brands are also developing their own vegan alternatives to carmine.

For example, Hourglass cosmetics created their own vegan alternative to carmine to find ‘the perfect red,’ which was released in 2019.

Hourglass’ parent company Unilever announced that this patent-pending innovation would become open-source (meaning anyone can use it) in 2021.

It’s a huge step forward, given one single lipstick can take the lives of up to 1000 cochineal insects.

Now that you know how versatile carmine is – how many products do you need to examine before buying?

What Products Contain Carmine?

Carmine Red Lipstick

Today, carmine is most commonly found in beauty and food products.

Although it might interest you to know that it was actually a highly sought-after clothing dye during the middle ages.

It was a rare find in Europe at the time and made for quite a regal statement in a cloak compared to the dusty brown and white clothes peasants commonly wore.   

Carmine in Cosmetics

Carmine is a popular pigment used in nail color, eyeshadow, color correctors, setting powders, lip balms, tints, lipsticks, and blushes.

And if you think we started using the ingredient in cosmetics recently – that is incorrect!

Archaeological evidence shows that the Egyptians and the Mexicans who loved carmine used mixtures of wax and crushed beetles to make their own rouge or lipstick.

Carmine in Food

Prepare yourself – the number of food products that get their bright color from carmine is astounding. The reason it's so commonly used is because:

  • The crushed-up bug shells are pasteurized and treated to avoid salmonella contamination
  • It’s relatively cheap, stable, and has a long shelf
  • It is more effective than other natural alternatives, which lose color in baking or other processes

If you want to buy pink or red food options, here's what to watch out for:

  • Yogurt, ice cream, and fruity flavored lattes (often strawberry flavored)
  • Alcohol, fruit juices, and soft drinks 
  • Candies, jellies, food colors for baking, pastries, doughnuts, and cupcakes
  • Processed meats, sausages, and tinned soups

Oh, but did we forget to mention that simply looking for the word “carmine” in the ingredients section is unlikely to tell you whether it's featured or not.

Yup – carmine has a few alternative names to watch out for too.   

Alternative Names for Carmine

Here are the most common names used to list carmine as an ingredient in a product. Whether it’s in your food or in a beauty product – you might find it listed like this:

  • E120
  • Natural red 4
  • Crimson lake
  • Carmine lake
  • CI 75470
  • Cochineal extract
  • Cochineal
  • Carminic acid
  • Natural colorings

How to Avoid Carmine

The most effective way to avoid carmine is to read ingredient labels on food, beverages, alcohol, and makeup.

Carmine is particularly popular in high-end products, so double-check and use our alternative names above for hidden use.

We would also recommend checking your strawberry vegan yogurt. Although it might be made from coconuts, the coloring might not be plant-based either.  

In fact, just by checking your labels means, you could stop massive multinational companies from hiding undesired ingredients in their products. Starbucks is just one of the controversial stories we share below.

Global Carmine Controversies

Carmine controversies have started to grow alongside the vegan movement. People are becoming more aware of what ingredients they ingest or use and are standing for what’s right.

In 2012 Starbucks came under fire for using carmine in its strawberry-flavored drinks.

And it wasn’t just cruelty-free consumers and vegans that were horrified but people who don’t eat animals for religious reasons.

Rightly so! Without knowing about the treatment of the insects, carmine may not be kosher or halaal. Shortly after, Starbucks announced it would use tomato-based Lycopene in strawberry drinks. It’s a win for au natural veggie alternatives!

Campari, an Italian liqueur, also removed carmine from its traditional ingredients list in 2006.

They now use an artificial, petroleum-based colorant.

+1 point to the cochineal bugs
- 1 point to animal testing and ingredient toxicity

While carmine is natural and could be considered safer, it doesn’t mean there aren’t risks to using it.

Are There Risks to Using Carmine?

Oh yes, there are!

Just because something is natural doesn’t make it safe for everyone.

Take gluten, for example. It's a natural protein that certain people are highly allergic to in wheat. Even topical application can lead to terrible health issues.

Carmine works just like any other natural ingredient. Some people suffer from allergies and hypersensitivities or can undergo antiphallic shock.

These individuals may suffer symptoms like facial swelling, rash, redness, and wheezing.

Though an allergen, carmine is not particularly common (unlike gluten), and tests can be done to confirm it.

So if carmine is not cruelty-free or vegan and cheap synthetic alternatives often lead to more environmental damage and animal testing, what can you trust? 

Are Carmine Alternatives Sustainable and Ethical?

When it comes to carmine alternatives – there are a few things to weigh up before you make a decision as to what you’d prefer to support. Here are pinnacle issues you need to consider first.  

How Sustainable and Ethical are Carmine Alternatives?

Natural, plant-based carmine alternatives (whether from sweet potatoes, tomatoes, or any other grocery shop ingredients) are your best bet – hands down. There’s no doubt about it.

Even when produced on a large scale, the land used could be similar to the cacti crops used for cochineal farming. Of course, with this cruelty-free method, there will be less suffering.

As we mentioned earlier – synthetic alternatives are technically acceptable according to the FDA standards. But that doesn’t make them your best bet, even if they’re cheaper and easier to find.

But to recap and give you a bit more insight, synthetic dyes of any color are cause for concern because:

  • They are still commonly tested on animals. So, can they actually be vegan if they’re not cruelty-free?
  • They’re commonly made from ingredients like petroleum by-products and tar, so they’re definitely not better for the environment or your well-being.
  • They’re commonly made with metal salts like aluminum, so they can also contain trace amounts of heavy metals.
  • This is so bad for you and marine life when it accumulates over time.They can also be associated with severe health issues like genotoxicity (cell damage) in larger quantities.

But say we were to abolish carmine and stick to natural plant-based dyes only – wouldn’t that be perfect?

Maybe in an ideal world. But in the real world, it may put a lot of people’s livelihoods in danger.  

Should the Carmine Industry Be Banned?

Cochineal insect farming is a practice that’s been around for thousands of years. It’s embedded into the culture of many indigenous groups, and stripping them of that privilege would be inhumane in itself.

Cochineal farming is not just about making red dye – there are additional layers of cultural complexity. In this case, global demand is what we take issue with, not South American traditions.

While you could argue that carmine farming also provides low-income communities with income – it’s worth knowing that these individuals don’t work in the best conditions.

Cochineal harvesters do their delicate job by hand, using traditional methods passed on through generations of farmers. In the end, these skilled workers aren’t renumerated well at all.

In 2018, the Peruvian Embassy in the UK reported that 32,600 workers were involved in the $46.4 million industry.

While we don’t know how much cochineal farmers earn everywhere. But, we can tell you that the earning potential for Guatemalan laborers is a maximum of $2 a day, and it is hardly ever reached.

Beyond the ethical dilemma workers face, most vegans and cruelty-free activists take issue with the loss of animal life incurred in mass-scale and industrialized agriculture.

  • So here are the questions you really need to consider:Is it sustainable in the long term?
  • What would South American locals do for work if we were to stop cochineal farming on a mass scale?
  • Do we have the resources to produce natural plant-based dyes on such a mass scale so that synthetic ones are used less?

Final Thoughts

Carmine is a substance referred to as “red gold” in the dye and color industry. It’s got an incredible history behind how we came to use the substance and how it enriched beauty and style culture as we know it.

We have a lot to thank for this historic pigment. But the question now is – can we finally put the use of this product to rest?

Carmine is not vegan by any definition or cruelty-free, in our opinion, as it involves killing and crushing these tiny insects on a mass scale.

In modern society, it’s your choice as a responsible consumer to read your product labels and make educated decisions about what you want to buy.

The ideal solution is to find product alternatives using plant-based natural dyes instead of synthetic ones. This way, you’re doing yourself and the environment a solid favor.

And if you see your favorite brand using carmine, then don’t be scared to reach out and voice your opinion. The more people share their thoughts – the more change we’re likely to drive.

In the last few years, the vegan movement has created an enormous opportunity for brands to go vegan and appeal to a growing customer base.

By applying pressure in this way, we leave these little bugs to a life of harmony on the cactus leaves they call

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