Starbucks recently found itself in hot water when news that the red dyes used in their strawberry drinks contained cochineal, a coloring made from crushed parasitic beetles. The ingredient has turned more than a few stomachs as it’s unfriendly to vegetarian customers, carries a few negative health impacts of its own, and ranks incredibly high on the “eww” factor scale. Starbucks’ Strawberries and Creme Blended Drinks and Strawberry Smoothies were cheerfully touted as vegan in the past — if one opts for them to be made with soy milk — but their “natural” dyes will now cause many to reconsider.
Cochineal dye is produced from dried female cochineal beetles, and PETA estimates that it takes somewhere in the region of 70,000 beetles to produce one pound of the red dye. The dye has been used for centuries, and can be traced back to Aztec and Mayan populations of Central and South America. In present day usage, the pigment shows up in everything from cosmetics to pop tarts. But cochineal and its cousin, carmine, are skin and respiratory irritants — studies have traced a link between the dye and asthmatic attacks and anaphylactic shock in factory workers exposed to the substance.
Since January 2011, the FDA has required cochineal and carmine to be prominently listed on food and cosmetics labels, which is how one vegan Starbucks employee was able to send a tip to This Dish is Veg when she noticed that their strawberry concentrate packaging changed and so too did a vital ingredient.
Starbucks spokesperson Jim Olsen emphasized, “the strawberry base for our Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino does contain cochineal extract, a common natural dye that is used in the food industry, and it helps us move away from artificial ingredients,” later adding “We certainly respect and understand the interest this is getting, but it is a very common ingredient in foods and juices and beverages,” and that the company has no plans to change the ingredient.
In the meantime, a petition has sprouted up at change.org to try to convince Starbucks to reconsider the crushed beetle beverage addition, with the recommendation that “While it’s commendable to move away from artificial ingredients, there are other natural means to achieve the red coloring. Red beet, black carrot, purple sweet potato and paprika are all-natural alternatives to artificial dyes and safe for those with dietary restrictions. (And those who don’t want crushed bugs in their designer drink.)”