Starbucks under fire for use of bug-derived extract

While enjoying a meal outside on a sunny day, many would cringe or even scream out loud if a bug landed on a crouton in their Caesar salad, or became a tiny corpse in their chardonnay. Who wants bugs in their food? Over the past few weeks, Starbucks has been scrutinized for its use of cochineal extract, a color additive which is derived from what many find unappetizing—bugs.

“Cochineal extract is a commonly used ingredient, and is a natural, FDA-approved colorant found in a wide variety of food and beverage products in the U.S.,” says a Starbucks media relations spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous in accordance with company policy.

Starbucks uses the ingredient in several pink and red colored foods and beverages as an alternative to artificial colorants.

“We use the extract in the strawberry base for our Strawberries and Creme Frappuccino blended beverage, Strawberry Smoothies and three food items—the Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing, and Red Velvet Whoopee Pie,” the spokesperson says.

According to the Starbucks representative, however, the widespread backlash against the use of the extract is prompting the coffee giant to reconsider its use.

“While it is a safe product that poses no health risk, we are reviewing alternative natural ingredients and will likely reformulate,” the spokesperson says.

Repeated attempts for comment at three Santa Monica Starbucks locations were unsuccessful, as baristas claimed they were not allowed to speak for Starbucks.

Cochineal bugs originate from Mexico and South America, and are used to create cochineal extract and carmine, which tint various products red, orange and pink. Carmine and cochineal extract differ in the way that they are processed, but they both originate from the same insect, and both must undergo pasteurization or other treatment to extinguish microorganisms.

According to an FDA report, carmine is “obtained by an aqueous extraction of cochineal,” while cochineal extract “is the concentrated solution obtained after removing the alcohol from an aqueous-alcoholic extract of cochineal.”

All products from makeup to Hostess Sno Balls are now forced to disclose the crawling ingredients to customers.

Only since 2011 did the FDA call for the use of carmine and cochineal extract to be specifically indicated on ingredient lists, according to the FDA’s website.

According to Douglas Karas, an FDA representative, the change occurred due to a response to reports of severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis.

The FDA now requires “that all foods that contain cochineal extract or carmine specifically declare the presence of the color additive by its respective common or usual name, ‘cochineal extract’ or ‘carmine,’ in the ingredient statement of the food label.”

Karas says that the disclosing of the ingredients “will allow consumers who are allergic to these color additives to identify, and thus avoid, products that contain these color additives.”

Even if the mere thought of consuming crushed bugs is repulsive to some, others are not as opposed to the idea of an organic source as a coloring additive.

“I think it needs to be shown on a product, in case someone is allergic,” says Santa Monica College student Ewa Glowacz. “But it’s organic, and bugs can be good for you.”

However, purists like Glowacz often avoid consuming anything that has been colored, thus bypassing the cochineal conundrum.

“From Starbucks, I only drink the double espresso,” says Glowacz. “People should not be drinking stuff with coloring in the first place. Food is not about being entertained; it’s about nutrition.”