Starbucks under fire for use of beetle blood in flavoring

March 27, 2012 | by Valerie Killifer

Starbucks Corp. has come under fire for its use of cochineal extract in the company's strawberry flavoring. The extract is dried blood from crushed female cochineal beetles and is used as an ingredient in reddish-colored foods and beverages – including fruit drinks, ice creams, yogurts and candies – and cosmetics.

Previously, the ingredient was listed on nutritional labels in the United States under the general heading "artificial colors" or "color added," but in December 2008, the Food and Drug Administration finalized a rule that required food companies to list cochineal extract and carmine on labels. The rule became effective in November 2011. Meanwhile, a 2009 New York Times blog highlighted the use of cochineal extract in food, drinks and cosmetics.

At issue over the ingredient, in part, is that some people are allergic to the bug extracts, which in extreme cases can induce an anaphylactic shock reaction.

In the case of Starbucks, a barista, who also is vegan, sent a photo to with a list of ingredients in the strawberry sauce. Prior to this, many vegans (those who don't consume dairy or animal products) and vegetarians believed that, when ordered with soymilk, Starbucks' Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino, as well as its Strawberry Smoothies, were free from animal products.

 According to a story in The Boston Globe:

Starbucks confirmed in an e-mail that its strawberry sauce contained cochineal extract and said in a statement that it strives “to carry products that meet a variety of dietary lifestyles and needs. We also have the goal to minimize artificial ingredients in our products. While the strawberry base isn’t a vegan product, it helps us move away from artificial dyes.”

In Starbucks' defense, many artifical dyes have been found to be carcinogenic. For example, in February 2011, the Center for Science in the Public Interest fought to ban the "caramel coloring" used in Coke and Pepsi products for its alleged use of cancer causing ingredients. The Center also has continuously petitioned the FDA to ban other synthetic dyes.

Since the Starbucks finding, South Carolina resident Daelyn Fortney has launched a campaign on asking the company to replace cochineal with beet extract as a dye, which she believes will increase the company’s appeal to vegetarian, vegan and kosher diets, as well as those who are allergic to cochineal.

Fortney also is the co-founder of the website that received the original photo of the flavoring ingredients.

"It takes 70,000 cochineal insects to produce 1 pound of the red dye in Starbucks' strawberry flavoring," Fortney said. "It's great that Starbucks is committed to reducing their use of artificial ingredients, but what would be even more admirable is if Starbucks considered other natural, plant-based additives such as beet, purple sweet potato, black carrot and paprika."

According to the book, "All Flesh is Grass: Plant-Animal Interrelationships" by Joseph Seckbach, many Muslims and Jews consider carmine-containing food forbidden because the dye is extracted from insects.

Carmine, also called Crimson Lake, Cochineal, Natural Red 4, is a pigment of a bright-red color obtained from the aluminum salt of carminic acid, which is produced by some scale insects, such as the cochineal.

Cochineal insects are soft-body, flat, oval-shape scale insects that cluster on cactus pads. The females are killed by immersion in hot water (after which they are dried) or by exposure to sunlight, steam, or the heat of an oven. Each method produces a different color and production is typically carried out locally, rather than in the countries of consumption.

As of 2005, Peru produced 200 tons of cochineal dye per year and the Canary Islands produced 20 tons per year. Chile and Mexico have also recently started to export cochineal. France is believed to be the world's largest importer of cochineal; Japan and Italy also import the insect. Much of these imports are processed and re-exported to other developed economies.

Read more about food and beverage trends.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Coffee / Specialty Beverages , Food & Beverage , Food Safety , Operations Management

Valerie Killifer / As the founder of P-O-P Content & Communications, Valerie Killifer brings her passion for creative thinking and relationship development to the forefront of her business. She spent 15 years as a professional journalist and continues to write about the brands, people and trends impacting the restaurant industry.
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