What Makes Candy Red?

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What Makes Candy Red?

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Most times, we are more concerned about the flavors of candies than their colors. People are more interested in what flavors candies have to offer. Not many are concerned about why red candies are red or why colored candies are colored.

However, the gag is that the food coloring industry is not as straightforward as you think.

What would you do if we told you that your favorite red candies might have been dyed with bugs? Did you go ‘Woah’? If yes, then great!

As you read, brace yourself for more information that will make you go ‘what?!’ because it sure will get wilder.

What Makes Candy Red? How do Red Candies get their Color?

The most natural way to make candy red is using ground-up cochineal bugs. These bugs are native to Latin America but are mainly farmed in Peru.

Scientists have been producing red dye with these chubby critters for years.

Although synthetic red dyes are slowly replacing cochineal bugs in the food coloring industry, cochineal insects are still much prevalent.

Cochineal extract is also known as carmine or K-carmine. This food coloring agent is obtained from boiling cochineal bugs and grounding them. Carmine is still used to make candies red.

As unappealing as it might be to learn that the candy you’ve enjoyed or are enjoying was colored with bugs, there aren’t serious health risks associated with eating red sweets colored with carmine.

However, if you have a carmine allergy, you should avoid foods made with carmine. Carmine allergy is caused by the cochineal insect protein released during extraction. This protein makes up about 0.5% of the cochineal extract.

If you are concerned about how you will know if candy or food is made with carmine, you shouldn’t be. Since January 5, 2011, the FDA has required manufacturers to declare openly whether cochineal extract or carmine is among the ingredients in their products.

Some symptoms of carmine include a swollen face, redness, rashes, and wheezing.

Foods with carmine, cochineal extract, or K-carmine do not belong in a kosher, vegan, or vegetarian diet for the obvious reason it is extracted from an insect. So vegans or vegetarians should avoid any foods labeled with this extract.

Additionally, some food companies like to play it safe or smartly and have vague ingredient tags on their products. For instance:

‘Naturally-sourced” “Natural”

These tags are problematic because naturally sourced ingredients could be anything from animal-sourced to plant-based.

Foods with a Long List of hard-to-pronounce Ingredients

This does not apply all the time.

Many times though, foods with a ridiculously long list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients can be an issue. This is because the ambiguity makes it easy for manufacturers to conceal potentially problematic ingredients like carmine.

If you are up to the task, make it a routine to do a deep check on each ingredient labeled on foods before you consume them. Avoid foods with a long list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients if you cannot pull this off.

Carmine does not only make candy red. It is also used as a dye in yogurt, fruit pies, ice cream, donuts, soft drinks, and cupcakes.

Furthermore, cochineal extract is used in the cosmetic industry and can be found in lipsticks.

What is Carmine Coloring Made of?

Carmine is made from crushing dried female cochineal insects native to Latin America. Carmine productions go back to the 1500s when the Aztecs and Mayans used these insects to color fabrics. Since then, carmine has extended textile uses and is being used in the food and cosmetic industry.

These red oval-shaped chunky little fellows are primarily harvested in Peru and the Canary Islands, where they survive on cacti.

Carmine extract comes from harvesting, sun-drying, and grinding cochineal bugs. This crushed extract is then mixed in an acidic solution, which results in carminic acid.

Is Carmine Safe?

Yes, carmine is generally considered safe to eat.

It doesn’t pose any significant health risk if you are not allergic to it. Symptoms of a carmine allergy involve rash, redness, wheezing, and a swollen face.

Carmine is not suitable for certain dietary choices like kosher, vegan, and vegetarian diets as they do not accommodate insect-sourced ingredients.

Is Red 40 Made from Bugs?

Red 40 isn’t made from bugs. Red 40 is a synthetic red dye made from petroleum and not from any animal products. If you want to know more about Red 40, stick around.

Being one of the most popular food dyes in the world, Red 40 is often used in jello, soda, tea, grapefruit juice, popsicles, candy, red frosting, and many more.

This synthetic red dye is also called:

  • FD & C RED 40
  • E129
  • CI Food Red 17
  • Allura Red AC
  • INS No. 129
  • Red 40 Aluminum Lake
  • Red 40 Lake

So if you come across any of these names listed on a label, it’s the Red 40 synthetic dye.

Although it used to be made from coal tar, Red 40 is now synthetically produced from petroleum.

A specific daily intake of 7 mg of Red 40 dye per kg body weight is recommended. For instance, someone who weighs 70 kg has an acceptable daily intake of 490 mg of Red 40 dye.

Unlike carmine dye, Red 40 is safe for kosher, vegan, or vegetarian diets.

Is Red 40 Dye Safe?

Although there’s a bit of controversy surrounding it, Red 40 dye is considered safe for persons of all ages.

If you have to consume foods containing Red 40 dye, stick to the recommended daily intake of 7 mg of Red 40 dye per kg of your body weight. For example, say you weigh 65 kg, your recommended daily intake will be 455 mg.

Do They Use Bugs to Make Red Dye?

Not all red dyes are made with bugs. The only red dye made with bugs is called carmine.

Also known as cochineal extract and K-carmine, carmine is made from cochineal bugs native to Latin America. The production process is in three parts:


Here, female cochineal bugs are harvested from their host plants, cacti. Female cochineal bugs burrow and hold tightly onto the cacti as it is their sole form of nourishment. Then, the cacti are cut and carried to the factories to harvest the bugs easily.


The bugs are then killed and exposed to sunlight to get rid of moisture.


The dried bugs are ground to produce the carmine powder. This crushed extract is later mixed with an acidic solution to give carminic acid.

Other red dyes are synthetic and are not animal-sourced.

Are Red Skittles Made out of Bugs?

Red skittles are not made from bugs, at least not after 2015.

Up until 2015, in the United Kingdom, the red skittles were colored with carmine or cochineal extract.

But now, the red skittles are made with Red 40 dye instead.

Also, before 2011, skittles contained gelatin which is not a vegan ingredient as it is made from animal collagen in animal connective tissues.

Are all Red Food Dye Made from Bugs?

No, not all red food dyes are made from bugs.

Sure some candies are still made with carmine, but not all are.

The fun fact is there’s a wider market for synthetic food dyes than for naturally-sourced food dyes (plant and animal-sourced).

The reason is that synthetic dyes are easier to produce and are more cost-effective than dyes made from plants or bugs.

So the likelihood of eating a red candy made with bugs is low. On the other hand, you are more likely to eat a candy made with synthetic red dye than one made with bugs.


Candies / Carmine / Cochineal bugs / Red / synthetic red dye

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