Have you ever eaten the dried and pulverized bodies of insects? Or perhaps painted them on your face or lips? Of course you have.
E120 is the designation of the food color natural red #4, crimson lake, or carmine. Sometimes it is called cochineal extract. This gives more of a clue as to its origins — the cochineal is an insect that feeds on cacti. When it is desiccated and crushed, its deep red innards form the dye that, after silver, was the second biggest export from Mexico back when Europeans plundered South America for all it was worth. Then, as now, it is generally farmed near Oaxaca.
The word carmine comes from carminic acid, the source of the cochineal’s color. It has been used in dyes, all manner of make-up, lipstick, and a wide array of foods for 500 years. It has been known to induce anaphylactic shock in people allergic to it, as well as hyperactivity in children sensitive to it, but is preferred by those who wish to avoid artificial colorants.
Go on, check your food and cosmetic lables. Don’t let it bug you.
The British Perfumer, Charles Lillie, 1822
Bizet's Carmen - from Carmine - from Chochineal - from Mexico