E 120 – carminic acid, carmine

What is E120 ?

E120, also known as carmine, cochineal extract, or carminic acid, is a bright red dye commonly used in the food industry, with the molecular formula C22H20O13. The dye E120 is characterized by its “bright red” color, which it imparts to the products it is incorporated into. The color obtained from using this dye is stable under heat (during thermal processing), light, oxidation, etc. Because of this stability, E120 is preferred over other dyes.

This dye is not derived from plants or fruits but from tiny insects. It is found in the body of the female Dactylopius Coccus Costa insect, which lives on certain species of cactus. Carminic acid is the primary dye, constituting about 10% of the dry weight of the insect’s body. To obtain the dye, the insects are collected, dried, and then crushed into a powder. This process can be time-consuming and costly, explaining why carmine is a more expensive dye. To produce 1 kg of E120, 155,000 insects are needed.

E120 can contain substantial amounts of aminocarminic derivatives formed during the heating of carminic acid in the presence of ammonia. There is also a similar-colored synthetic dye (E124).

Regulatory Information

According to EU legislation, commercial preparations containing E120 should have at least 2% carminic acid in extracts and no less than 50% carminic acid chelates (European Commission, 2012). The maximum daily intake has been set by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) at 5 mg/kg body weight, with a maximum inclusion level of 50-500 mg/kg body weight.

Usage and Safety

E120 is used alone or in combination with other additives. It is recommended to read food labels carefully.

Despite its unusual source, carmine (E120) is generally considered a safe food additive by regulatory bodies worldwide at controlled levels. E120 can be found in various food products, including:

  • Yogurts and other dairy products
  • Candies and sweets
  • Juices with a red tint
  • Ice creams
  • Baked goods
  • Jams, jellies, and marmalades

The European InfoCons App, helps the consumer with the product label interpretation, calories, sugar and salt intake projections, safety food alerts, extended analysis of products the consumer save, scan log and the means to react (complain, rate) to a product anywhere in the world.

Contraindications and Risks

Carmine (E120) can generally be safely used for coloring food in quantities adhering to good manufacturing practices. Available genotoxicity studies show that carminic acid (E120) does not induce genetic mutations or chromosomal damage and has no mutagenic potential.

However, carmine is not suitable for everyone. Some individuals may experience allergic reactions, and vegetarians or vegans may avoid it due to its animal origin.

Read also : The InfoCons App User Guide

Limiting E120 in the Diet

There are other natural red dyes available, such as E162 obtained from red beet or E163 anthocyanins and anthocyanidins derived from fruits and vegetables.

Ultimately, the choice of dye depends on the preferences of producers and consumers. By reading nutritional labels and being aware of what products contain, one can limit the intake of foods with this additive. Preferred products can be replaced with similar ones that have cleaner labels or use natural additives.

Read also : Magnesium Phosphates E343

Author – Cosmina Nițu

Master in Nutrition – Infant and new born nutrition


EFSA – The European Food Safety Authority


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