Not every product that claims to be “all natural” or contains “natural color” over “artificial color” is exactly healthy, or necessarily derived from vegetarian sources. Some additives aren’t just animal derived, but prompt allergic reactions in some people or violate religious rules such as kosher.
Carminic Acid or Carmine, is one of these additives. Often listed as “color added” or “natural color,” carminic acid is derived from an insect, Dactlyopius coccus Costa mainly found in Peru and the Canary Islands. The insect consumes the red berries of cactuses and the pigment is stored in the bodies of the female insect and their larvae.
The mommy and baby bugs are killed, dried and crushed into a pigment powder whose yield is approximately 1 pound of dye for every 70,000 corpses. The reddish pigment is sought after for products that need a “natural color” in the red, pink and purple range, products like Dannon Strawberry Yogurt and Ocean Spray pink-grapefruit juice.
Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t require the manufacturers of food additives to reveal the specific composition of those additives in the ingredient lists of the food products that contain them. Such would compromise the trade secrets of highly competitive companies whose profit line is very thin and these companies have very powerful lobby groups to prevent the FDA from ever reaching what might seem the sanest conclusion.
Because the dye is derived from the desiccated corpses of insects though, it can be labeled as Natural, which is beneficial to many food product producers. They had noticed for some time that the addition of Artificial ingredients had resulted in poor sales. Natural sounds healthier and appeals to the people who read their product labels. Carminic Acid’s label is deliberately vague though and doesn't suggest its origin, after all, insects are natural aren’t they?
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Houghton Mifflin, 2001.