There’s An Insect In My Food!

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E120, additive 120, cochineal, cochineal extract, carmine, carminic acid, natural red 4. These are all varying names for the food additive E120.  What is E120, where is it derived from, what is it used for and why do we have a whole blog post dedicated to it? Read on to find out.

What is E120?

E120 is a natural food additive that is also known by a number of common names, such as cochineal and carmine. It is a pigment that provides a deep red colour and is added to many different foods, make up, basically everything!

What surprises most people is that E120 is actually derived from cochineal scale insect (Dactylopius coccus).

Say What?!

That’s right – the lovely red colour that has been deliberately added to your food and make up is actually processed female insects! Depending on the required colour, there are a number of ways these insects are processed. They can be boiled, steamed, baked in the oven or exposed to sunlight then dried and crushed. Approximately 15,000 insects are used to produce 1kg of dye.

e120 cochineal carmine scale insect
Dactylopius coccus” by Frank Vincentz at en.wikipedia is licensed under Creative Commons.

What is E120 used for?

Cochineal can be found everywhere ranging from sausages, chewing gum, lollies and juices to lipsticks, blushes and foundation. Since it is considered a natural additive, it’s use to produce a vibrant red colour has been preferred over the use of previous artificial additives that had more severe health risks, such as Red 2.

Is E120 Safe?

In 2009, the American FDA ruled that products containing cochineal had to explicitly state it on its label rather than simply grouping it with the other ‘natural flavours’ as there were a few cases of individuals developing allergic reactions.

At this stage, it’s hard to say whether cochineal itself or its manufacturing process is causing the problem but there has been a rise in the number of allergic reactions as its use increases.

Watch Out

Since it is derived from scale insects, E120 is definitely not a vegan friendly additive and is one to look out for and avoid.  We have found it used even in unsuspecting food such as chewing gum and vitamins!  Have you found E120 in food or products where you never expected to see it?

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