Carmine is a natural red pigment derived from the dried bodies of cochineal scale insects (Dactylopius coccus Costa) which are native to tropical and subtropical South America, Mexico and Argentina where they grow on the cactus plants that provide their primary food source. The deep crimson dye they secrete deters predators and protects the nymphs during larval development. The resulting kermesic acid is separated from the insects and combined with an aluminum ion to produce a variety of colored foods and cosmetics.
The colorant is one of the most stable natural colorings available and can withstand intense heat treatments such as UHT pasteurization, as well as exposure to air, light and high humidity. It can also produce a wide range of colors including orange, red, purple and magenta depending on the method of formulation used. In addition to beverages and dairy products, it is often found in a number of processed meats and sweets, as well as cosmetics.
A 35-year-old man with asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis developed a systemic reaction to the dye after handling carmine powder at work. Skin prick tests and passive oral challenge were positive for allergic sensitization to carmine. The patient’s reaction symptoms improved after discontinuing his work with the spice. A controlled exposure test showed that the patient’s asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis were triggered by handling the dry, kermesic acid form of the dye and not the dissolved, pigmented carmine. The results of a Prausnitz-Kustner test with his wife also confirmed a positive response to the powdered form of the dye.