You’ve probably never heard of carmine dye, because it doesn’t appear on food product ingredient lists. Nevertheless, it can be found throughout the food system. Carmine dye is a bright red pigment derived from carminic acid, which is produced from insects such as the cochineal. These tiny bugs are found on cacti in Central and South America, and have been used for dye since the 15th century. Today, carmine can be found in yogurt, juice, ice cream, and candy — as well as in cosmetics such as eye shadow and lipstick.

The use of carmine is controversial because of its implications for individuals who practice vegetarian, vegan, halal, or kosher diets. You’ve probably never realized that Smarties (which contain carmine) do not abide by these dietary rules.

Carmine has increased in popularity in recent years because of the food industry’s movement away from the use of artificial colour. Up until the 1970s, Red Dye No. 2 was the most commonly used red dye in food and various other products, including children’s medicine. That was until 1976, when it was banned as a result of its carcinogenic properties.

This sparked a fear of anything red, which caused M&Ms to remove their red candies, even though they weren’t made with this ingredient. The infamous Smarties slogan “When you eat your Smarties, do you eat the red ones last?” was used from the 1970s until the mid 1990s. It was supposedly proposed by a Smarties factory worker whose daughter used to eat her Smarties in this order. However, the coincidental timing of this slogan suggests otherwise.
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Today, Red Dye No. 40, the successor of Red Dye No. 2, is found in everything from canned fruit to hot dogs, and of course, maraschino cherries. Although it is considered safe, studies continue to show its potential as a carcinogen, as well as its strong association with hyperactivity in children.

As a result of the controversy surrounding Red Dye No. 40, as of March 2009, products like Smarties are made entirely with “natural colours,” which, as you now know, includes insects. You might have also noticed that blue Smarties were missing for a year: this was because the manufacturer needed more time to source a suitable natural blue dye. Blue Smarties have been reintroduced as of June 2010.

Thus, in the quest to produce healthier food products, the use of insects might seem unusual. Nevertheless, consuming insects is surely superior to consuming the dangerous synthetic chemicals that lurk in our food system.