FDA Guidelines on Carmine Bring a Boon to the Kosher Consumer

We have all heard of the dangers associated with artificial colors. With many artificial colors having been found to be carcinogenic, one certainly understands that consumers would prefer not to see “artificial colors” listed on the ingredient panel, and industry is proud to prominently display a “No Artificial Colors” disclaimer to win over the health conscious consumer. This has helped spur demand for cochineal extract and carmine (a more purified form of cochineal extract). These dyes are made from carminic acid which is extracted from the cochineal scale insect and are therefore natural products.

Although the cochineal is native to South America, the process of creating dyes from insects has also been known to the “Old World” for thousands of years. The Old World kermes (kermes vermilio) which inhabits the Mediterranean basin was used to make a red dye in ancient Egypt and is one of the oldest known organic pigments. The Bible uses the words Tolaat Shani to refer to the scarlet threads sown into the coverings of the Tabernacle and the vestments of the priests. The Hebrew word Tolaat can also mean worm or insect. This has led some Biblical scholars to surmise that these red threads were dyed with an extract from kermes vermilio. Whether this is true or not, we certainly admire these bright dyes. However, since these dyes are extracts of insects they are not kosher. Even foods that are colored with carmine are not kosher.

Until recently, FDA labeling guidelines have allowed these dyes to be listed as “natural red” or even just plain “natural coloring.” However, for a small percentage of consumers for whom carmine can trigger a severe allergic reaction this anonymity has been dangerous. Therefore, effective January 5, 2011 new FDA guidelines require declaration by name on the label of all foods and cosmetics that contain these color additives. As a result of the new guidelines some manufacturers, who would rather not list carmine on their labels, have opted to reformulate their products.

An unintended consequence of the new legislation is a windfall for the kosher consumer. Some products which were unable to be certified kosher because they had always contained carmine have now been reformulated and may be eligible for kosher certification. If you have any questions as to whether this might apply to any of your products, please consult your rabbinic coordinator, who can best advise you as to the feasibility of having your products certified.

Rabbi Eli Gersten serves as OU rabbinic coordinator – recorder of OU policy. In that important capacity, he works closely with OU’s senior rabbinic team that reviews and formulates OU Kosher policy. A frequent contributor to BTUS, his “Dream Team” appeared in the Winter 2010/2011 issue.