Updated 4/19/12: Starbucks has announced that due to the controversy surrounding the use of cochineal extract, that they will use lycopene to color their Strawberry & Creme Frappuccino and Strawberry Banana Smoothie.  Starbucks is also dropping cochineal extract in their Raspberry Swirl Cake, Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing and Red Velvet Whoopie Pie.

Starbucks Stawberry Frappuccino

Virtually every news outlet is reporting that Starbucks is using cochineal extract in their popular strawberry beverages.  When I read this, my first thought was, how did people find out? Starbucks doesn’t post or provide any of their ingredients to consumers (only allergy information and the required nutritional information). Apparently, a vegan Starbucks barista notified the site, www.thisdishisvegetarian.com, that Starbucks had changed the formula of their Strawberries & Cream Frappucinos and Strawberry Smoothies to contain cochineal extract. The barista also included a few cell phone pics of the packages to show the ingredient lists.

So what’s all the fuss about cochineal extract? It’s made from…bugs.  It’s used as an alternative to artificial dyes and can be found in many foods including yogurt, candy, applesauce, baked goods, and other red processed foods. Here is an excerpt from our Cochineal Extract Ingredient Report on exactly what this dye is and how it’s made:

“…A dye which can produce a variety of shades from pink, red, crimson, and purple. This colorant is made from the female Cochineal insects which are native to South America. The insects are scale insects which lives and feeds on cacti. Cochineal Extract is made from the dried and pulverized insects whereas Carmine is more purified. To produce Carmine, the insects are boiled and filtered with other chemicals.”

Yum. I applaud Starbucks for moving away from artificial colorants like Red #40, but not sure this was the right way to go. Aside from the gross-factor, check out the possible issues surrounding this “natural” coloring agent:

“…Because this colorant is derived from an animal source, it is problematic to vegetarians/vegans, and within certain religions (some Muslims and Jews). Due to several studies on children and hyperactivity, the European Union requires food containing this colorant to have a label which states: “may have an adverse effect on activity in children.”  In 2005, the WHO issued the following statement on this colorant: “The Committee concluded that cochineal extract, carmines, and, possibly, carminic acid in foods and beverages may initiate or provoke allergic reactions in some individuals. Because some of the adverse reactions are severe, it considered that appropriate information, for example noting the presence of the colour in foods and beverages, should be provided to alert individuals who are allergic to these compounds.”"

To see the full report, click here.

Hmmm…if after consuming one of these beverages you get hives, your asthma flares up, or a touch of diarrhea, this new food additive could be to blame. Kids acting a little hyper? Cochineal could be the culprit. I have an idea for Starbucks. Loose the coloring agents and use more real strawberries in your products which are already red. I know, it’s revolutionary.

Image: jeffgunn via Flickr