High carmine prices boost search for alternative colours

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Raw material, Cochineal, Food and drug administration

Suppliers of the food colouring carmine are taking a cautious approach to new customers, as the industry continues to feel the impact of supply shortages, which this year sent prices for the ingredient soaring six fold.

The supply pressures have been two-pronged, with an increased demand as manufacturers look for more natural colours, together with climate conditions hampering cochineal production.

Carmine is made from carminic acid, produced from the ground bodies of cochineal insects, primarily grown on South American cactus. It is a popular ingredient for food and beverage applications both for its distinct pink, red or purple colour and for its stability in acid and heat.

The colouring is currently used in a variety of products such as ice creams, yogurts, fruit drinks, alcoholic drinks and candy products.

However, leading manufacturers of the ingredient have confirmed that higher costs for the raw material have forced them to increase prices for the ingredient. Tighter supplies have also resulted in a renewed focus on alternatives.

“Market prices for cochineal raw material have increased significantly over the last year anywhere from 6 to 8 fold, causing carmine color prices to increase similarly as well,”​ said ingredient firm Wild.

DD Williamson also agreed that “we’re seeing a five- to six-fold increase in our ingredients (cochineal extract and carmine) in 2010 over 2009.”

Supply and demand

Reasons for the increase include a tightened supply from the raw material suppliers, as well as an increased demand primarily from European food and beverage manufacturers.

Tightened supplies can be put down to a combination of climate conditions which hampered harvesting along with limited cochineal production after low prices several years ago prompted farmers to switch to more profitable products such as asparagus, bell peppers and avocado.

However, at the same time demand from the food industry in Europe increased as a result of the overall trend towards natural ingredients. This has been particularly boosted by the study from Southampton University, which linked six artificial food colours to hyperactivity in children.

“It resulted in a ​de facto ban on the Southampton colours, and a major increase in demand for natural alternatives,”​ said Barry Foley, EU technical services manager at DD Williamson.

The firm said it is able to secure supplies for its customers on contract as it has “a preferential relationship”​ with its supplier in South America, but new customer enquiries are treated on a “case-by-case basis”​ now.


Although the market is showing signs of recovery, prices are still expected to remain relatively high.

“The raw material supply has begun to stabilize; however, prices remain high due to demand. A slow price decrease is expected, but not back to the previous historically low levels,”​ said Wild.

As such, demand for alternatives is expected to continue, prompting ingredient suppliers to explore alternative avenues. In addition, new rules across the Atlantic are also leading to increased demand for alternatives.

Until now, food marketers in the US have been able to label carmine as ‘color added’, since it is a certification exempt colour additive. However, from January 5 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require manufacturers to call it out on ingredient statements as ‘carmine’ or ‘cochineal’, leading some food and beverage manufacturers to consider alternatives.

These include colours based on based on purple sweet potato, paprika, red beet and black carrot.

However, DD Williamson – which also supplies alternatives – said one of the challenges in replacing carmine and cochineal extracts is that while a similar hue may be obtained, it is difficult to match the stability properties.

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