AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Why you shouldn't care about insect dye used in Starbucks Frappuccino

Rick Sinnott
Stephen Nowers illustration

About two months ago a Starbucks barista read the ingredients on a bag of a Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino mix, snapped a photo of the bag, and forwarded her discovery to a website that specializes in vegetarian and animal-rights issues. One ingredient, cochineal extract, wasn't something that should be found in a soy drink designed for vegetarians and vegans. Cochineal is a red dye extracted from crushed insects.

All hell broke loose. Starbucks immediately announced it would find another source for red dye, one more acceptable to the vegan community. Vegans recommended using plant dyes extracted from red beets, black carrots, purple sweet potatoes, or paprika. Some wondered why the strawberries weren’t pink enough to tint the drink.

Many vegans and vegetarians, swept up in a paroxysm of outrage, have failed to consider the unintended consequences of forcing Starbucks to pick another food coloring.

We weren’t always so fastidious

Humans have eaten insects since the dawn of mankind. In recent centuries, entomophagy has fallen out of favor in the Western world. People’s expectations and government oversight have reduced insect parts in our food, but it’s only been in the past century that Western culture could afford to be so picky.  

We weren’t always so fastidious. In "The Fortune of War", one of a series of historically accurate novels on the naval wars of the Napoleonic era, Captain Aubrey posed a question to his good friend, the ship’s surgeon. Pointing to a couple of weevils crossing the table, abandoning one of the Royal Navy’s notoriously bug-infested ship’s biscuits, he asked the doctor which weevil he would choose, apropos of nothing. The doctor noted they were the same species, but if pressed he would pick the heftier one. Aubrey laughed and said, “Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils?”

This universal rule of thumb is eschewed by vegans, who refuse to eat anything of animal origin. No meat, milk, cheese, eggs, honey. Not even bugs. On that last item, vegan and mainstream dietary preferences overlap. Unfortunately, the contemporary Western taboo against insect consumption can pose a serious dilemma when it comes to making an environmentally responsible decision.

These people are serious

But let’s duck back to the 19th century for a minute. Like Starbucks’ frappuccino faux pas, India’s First War of Independence was a backlash triggered, in part, by underestimating the public’s unwillingness to eat taboo animal products. In the mid-19th century, Great Britain reinforced its 50,000 troops in colonial India with about 200,000 sepoys, native soldiers of both Hindu and Muslim faiths. A new infantry rifle, a muzzleloader, was adopted by the army. Its cartridges consisted of a lead ball and gunpowder inside a paper tube. The paper was coated with tallow or lard for water-resistance and to facilitate ramming the ball down the barrel. To load, a soldier would bite off the end of the paper cartridge, pour the gunpowder down the barrel, then use the ramrod to push the ball and paper wad onto the powder.  

But the lubricant was a problem. If it were beef tallow, putting it into the mouth or even touching the cartridge would humiliate and offend the Hindu sepoys.  If pork lard, the Muslim sepoys would be offended. Soon many of the sepoys of both faiths were not only unwilling to load their weapons, they were in revolt. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died in the subsequent turmoil.  

If you aren’t a vegetarian or vegan, you might have missed the point I'm trying to make -- these people are serious.

The diets of contemporary vegans are not necessarily dictated by religious strictures; they are often related to health concerns or an unwillingness to contribute to animal suffering. However, cochineal extract may offend meat-eaters as well. Many Muslims and some Jews avoid eating insects for religious reasons. The rest of us, well, let’s just say we’d rather not eat bugs.

Bugs as food additives

So it wasn’t surprising that Starbucks’ decision to use cochineal extract to dye their Strawberry & Crème Frappuccinos was controversial. Cochineal is a tiny insect found on prickly pear cacti. Females are about five millimeters in length, or roughly as long as a conga line formed by 10 grains of table sugar. It takes 70,000 female cochineal insects to make one pound of carmine dye.  

Aztecs and Mayans dyed fabrics with crushed cochineal. Cortez, impressed by the deep carmine color, brought the extract back to Europe, where it provided the blood-red dye for Catholic cardinals’ robes and the jackets of British Redcoats. At one time, cochineal trailed only gold and silver as the most valuable import from the New World.

Cochineal has been replaced by other fabric dyes, but it’s found a new use in the 20th century. Many synthetic red food colorings have proven carcinogenic. Thus, health fears over artificial food additives have increased cochineal’s use as a natural food additive.

Where do we draw the line?

Although a vegan is not necessarily an animal-rights activist, or vice versa, the two philosophies are clearly linked, and proponents of both persuasions strive for mutual support. In Animal Liberation, a seminal book of the animal-rights movement, Peter Singer wrote that ceasing to eat animals was of “supreme importance” in reducing the suffering and exploitation of animals.

Leaders of the animal-rights movement are sometimes wildly inconsistent in their beliefs. Dr. Albert Schweitzer became a vegetarian late in life, telling someone “I can’t eat anything that was alive any more.”

He insisted that flowers not be cut for indoor vases, but he killed spiders, carried a gun to shoot poisonous snakes and, of course, continued eating plants. Strictly speaking, his most famous ethical precept -- the reverence for life -- was muddied by his career choice, which necessitated annihilating all manner of bacteria and parasites to promote public health or save the lives of his patients.

Sometimes one’s decision to avoid some food item is a little arbitrary or based on incomplete or erroneous information. I briefly considered not eating shrimp when I was a teenager after seeing a photo of an unbreaded live shrimp. My palate won that skirmish.

But even an animal-rights activist’s carefully reasoned list of menu options can look a little cockeyed if you step back and squint at it. Based on an organism’s capacity to feel pain, which seemed to be less acute in “very primitive organisms” such as mollusks, Singer decided “somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster seems as good a place to draw the line as any, and better than most.”

Well, sure -- if you’re not an oyster.

Cure more harmful than disease

Starbucks plans to replace cochineal extract with lycopene, a natural dye made from tomatoes. Interestingly, their frappuccino mix already contained lycopene.

Why was it necessary to add the cochineal extract in the first place?

What got Starbucks into this mess was a laudable decision to replace potentially carcinogenic synthetic red dyes. Cochineal, a natural product approved for human consumption, seemed like the environmentally correct choice.  

Animal-rights activists don’t want to kill insects and vegans don’t want to eat them. But did the protestors give any thought to how many insects are killed to raise a crop of tomatoes? How about adding more pesticides to our water supply? Genetically modified plants? Additional loss of wildlife habitat to industrial agricultural?

Lots of pesticides -- including insecticides, miticides, fungicides, and herbicides -- are used to manage pests in commercial tomato fields. Maybe I’m a little different, but the thought of consuming a pinch of powdered insect parts in my designer coffee doesn’t make my stomach lurch like the thought of swallowing a sweetened cocktail of carcinogenic synthetic dyes and pesticides.

Unlike cochineal, most tomatoes are grown on industrial farms that rely heavily on fertilizers and pesticides. If a farmer uses the wrong pesticide, or applies it incorrectly or too early or late in the growing cycle, or at the wrong time of day, or the wind blows it into a waterbody, it can kill beneficial insects like honey bees, lady beetles and aquatic insects.

I haven’t seen any reference to these concerns in the news stories flying around the Internet. Starbucks’ Strawberry & Crème Frappuccinos are going to kill millions of insects whether they use cochineal extract or tomato extract. There are bigger issues here.

Starbucks wasn’t forcing anyone to drink their cochineal-laced frappuccinos. By demanding that the company replace the cochineal extract with lycopene, vegans and animal-rights activists may have done Mother Earth a great disservice. Fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”  and people still prefer ingesting pesticides to a few powdered, organic bugs?

Big picture or the bottom line?

Turns out Starbucks was also using cochineal extract in five other pink-and-red-colored deserts.

And cochineal is used to color alcoholic drinks, desserts, jams, juice beverages, sauces, and sweets -- all items that the practicing vegan must consume with care. It is used by the cosmetics industry for any number of hair and skin-care products and enhancers. Cochineal is even used to color pills and pharmaceutical ointments. The dye is also known as carmine, crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, E120, and “natural coloring.”

Ironically, even the most scrupulous vegan cannot avoid insects in his or her diet. Fresh vegetables and processed foods are littered with dead insect carcasses and eggs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), realizing that prohibiting all insect parts in processed food would mean the end of eating as we know it, allows up to 150 insect fragments per 100 grams of wheat flour. Frozen broccoli can average up to 60 aphids, thrips, or mites per 100 grams before the FDA takes action. Tomato puree is allowed up to 20 fly eggs or two maggots per 100 grams. In fact, some experts estimate we eat one or two pounds of insects each year without realizing it.

Instead of catering to a limited subset of consumers, Starbucks should have stuck with its original decision to use cochineal. In reconsidering the protests of vegetarians and vegans, Starbucks should have kept its eye on the big picture, not just the bottom line.

I’d feel sorry for Starbucks, except for one thing. Some people are allergic to cochineal. In very rare instances consumption of the dye can cause anaphylactic shock. I’m not aware of any serious allergic reactions attributed to Starbucks’ use of cochineal. However, because cochineal may provoke an allergic reaction, public health officials recommend it be included in ingredient lists. Starbucks may have followed the letter of the law by listing cochineal on the frappuccino mix package. But the list of ingredients wasn’t posted on individual cups of java. That was a big mistake, and almost certainly one of the reasons the company folded so quickly.

Of course, some people are also allergic to tomatoes. There is no single choice that will make everyone happy.

Vegans, vegetarians, and animal-rights activists are ecstatic over their pyrrhic victory. Now they can return to their favorite Starbucks and indulge in a Strawberry & Crème Frappuccino, Birthday Cake Pop, or Red Velvet Whoopie Pie, having naively convinced one another that they only consume healthy, nutritious, insect-free foods whose ingredients protect our nation’s clean water supply and preserve the balance of nature.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com