Green Monday Lesson: Carmine aka Cochineal Extract – Natural does not equal Cruelty Free

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“Excuse me, but there’s a bug in my makeup”

Green Monday Lesson: Carmine aka Cochineal Extract - Natural does not equal Cruelty Free

Recently you may have heard the outcry when it was discovered by this dish is veg that some of Starbucks’ vegan friendly wares, the soy based Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino and Strawberry Smoothies, were not actually, well…vegan.

Due to a recent (but short lived) change in ingredients, Starbucks was using cochineal extract, also known as carmine, as a red colorant in their strawberry flavored products. While this dye is “all natural” it is not vegan. In fact, cochineal extract is produced by grinding the dried shells, wings and eggs of the female cochineal beetle.

Ewww…let’s lessen the sting of that that mental image by viewing Stephen Colbert’s take on the situation.

The Colbert ReportMon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Thought for Food – Bug Food Coloring, Hot-Dog-Stuffed Crust & Drugged Poultry
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Since beetle-gate broke, it’s important to note that Starbucks has revised their recipe, replacing the cochineal extract with a plant based red colorant. Even better, while many vegans were aware of the use of this bug-derived colorant, the controversy alerted many consumers to the wide spread popularity of the dye in our foods.

With the shift away from synthetic dyes, this natural (but kind of gross) colorant can be found in all types of foods including meat, sausages, processed poultry products, marinades, alcoholic drinks, cookies, desserts, icings, pie fillings, jams, preserves, gelatin desserts and juice beverages (source: Wikipedia).

But did you know that this dye is often used in makeup as well?

It’s true. You’ll find carmine in many cosmetics. Most often lipsticks, but it can be found in all types of products – including glosses, blushes and eye shadows – with pink, red and even purple hues. So if you are a vegetarian, going cruelty-free in your makeup purchases or just a little squeamish at the thought, you’ll want to carefully read the labels for this additive.

Additionally, it should be noted that cochineal extract has been found to cause serious allergic reactions for some people, with consequences ranging from hives, rashes and itchy skin to more severe issues including asthma attacks and anaphylactic shock. If you find certain products cause a skin reaction, check the label, as carmine could be the culprit.

Bear in mind, the use of cochineal bug extract has a long and storied history dating back to the 15th century. So unless you’re one of the unlucky that are allergic, it should not hurt you. In fact, you’ve probably been eating and wearing these ground up beetles for years. It’s just one of those things that’s nice to know, so we can decide for ourselves if it’s something we can live with in the name of beauty (or dessert).

For years, manufacturers hid their use of this dye by calling cochineal extract names like natural red 4, C.I. 75470, E120, and even “natural coloring” on their labels. However, here in the States, the FDA has declared that as of January 2011 all cosmetic, food and beverage manufacturers that use cochineal bug extract to color their products must declare this ingredient on the label.

To check for this color additive in your food or cosmetics, check the label for the words “cochineal extract” or “carmine”. And while the FDA took the step to make companies declare the ingredient in their goods, they are not forced to explain the origins – insects. For many, “carmine” is just another odd word on their label, so pass the information on to friends and family that may appreciate it. After all “the more you know…”

we heartsters – are you bugged out by this color additive? Or do subscribe to the notion that all’s fair in love, food and beauty?


  • tyna

    Tyna is a former editor of we heart this that worries about becoming a crazy cat lady, reads at least a book a week, checks in at a Flyers fan forum every morning and is forever organizing her closets and drawers. skin tone: NW 20/25 skin type: combination favorite beauty product: eye shadows and lip balms

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  1. Great info @tyna! I personally was more bothered about it being in my yogurt than in my cosmetics, but it is a bit unnerving when you find it in the ingredient list! I’m still using the lipsticks etc I own, that have it in them!

    1. Thanks @spitfire77! As a vegetarian I’ve known about carmine for years – it’s one of those “secrets” fellow veggies pass among themselves to be on the lookout for in food (and beauty) labels. I was happy for the Starbucks brewhaha as it got the info out there to lots of people – and a Colbert bump can’t hurt! Meat-lover or vegan, people should know exactly what’s in their food, ya know? Especially when it’s beetles. And since that controversy was all about food and drink, we wanted to let people know it’s used in lots of beauty items as well – and I found the allergy info very interesting.

  2. I have a slight phobia of bugs. I’m going through all my red-reddish-purple-orange makeup now. Ugh. Thankfully, I never had a strawberry Starbucks thingy. I will be on the lookout from here on out.

  3. This isn’t something that bugs me. I’m someone who likes to mash blueberries (hate the taste) and make the rub the juice all over my lips or use it as paint. I use leaves as stencils and stamps. I’ve smashed up, squished, sqaushed, pounded…you name it, I’ve probably done it in the name of beauty, makeup and artistry.

    It’s weird that people insist on companies going as natural as possible with skincare and makeup, yet a little bit of animal product such as carmine (which is natural!) causes a spark of outrage. It’s a double standard. What’s “natural” in the beauty and skincare world? Anyone can get an allergic reaction from any product or ingredient, whether it’s carmine, perfume, lotion or retinal. The range of allergies is the same from itching to hives to asthma attacks to anaphylactic shock. I’ve suffered all of these except the last one from every form of product.

    I’m just so frustrated sometimes!

  4. Yeah…this ooks me out! But enough to not buy products that have it? Probably not. I do appreciate companies who are apparent about their ingredients though, which allows everyone has to make their own decisions on what they’re comfortable with. Is Carmine natural? Is it organic? Is it cruelty free? Is a bug’s life worth less than another creature?

    Don’t they say you eat a certain amount of bugs every year anyway (from crawling in your mouth while you’re sleeping or while you’re outside)? Maybe if I keep using my red l/s I’m just taking care of my bug eating quota!

  5. This is really interesting (and really gross), @tyna ! I had no idea what carmine was made of. Time to start reading labels… Eek!

  6. I’m a lacto-ovo-pescitarian (I usually just tell people I’m vegetarian but not vegan) for multiple reasons. What other people choose to eat or wear is mostly up to them, and while some might say my dietary and fashion choices are hypocritical at times, I have my own set of ethics and I abide by them. So am I okay with carmine? Not so much in my food, but I’m okay with a little in my makeup, although I’d prefer that it’s not.

    But what I really think the underlying issue is indifference and ignorance. People believe in what advertising tells them is “good.” “Natural” isn’t inherently good, nor is “synthetic” inherently bad. We shouldn’t blindly accept the labels and messages that advertising tries to sell us. People choose not to look into these issues of ingredients and additives, or didn’t think it was important until it was in THEIR STARBUCKS FRAPPUCCINO!! Be an informed consumer!

  7. Honestly, carmine doesn’t bother me. I definitely try to buy ethical or vegan products if they work & look good, but animal products in things don’t bother me. I used to sell make up for a vegan make up brand and you’d be surprised how many high end labels used animal derived ingredients in make up & face products. I do have issues with animal testing because I think it’s unnecessary. If an ingredient is that harmful, it shouldn’t be put on anyone or anything’s skin or eyes. I don’t like Strawberry Frapps, so it didn’t really bother me. I would honestly rather eat the bug juice than synthetic chemicals. A cartoon came out showing how different parts of the cow were used in various ways in many every day products.

    I know there are many vegan alternatives to things on this list, but nevertheless, a couple beetles in my drink is far less scary than cow brain in my anti-aging cream

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