Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Brouhaha in a Strawberry Frappuccino: Starbucks Tries to Get It Right But Falters

Give credit where credit is due: Starbucks tried to get it right. The Seattle-based coffee purveyor tried to avoid using fake-food chemical dyes in half a dozen delicious pink-to-red edibles. 

But Starbucks didn't foresee the public recoil as fans become increasingly educated about "natural" ingredients. 

The brouhaha started last month when an upset vegan-eating barista emailed a photo of Starbucks' strawberry flavoring label to website ThisDishIsVegetarian.com.

Included in the label's ingredients is cochineal extract, a natural-based dye commonly "used to produce a range of scarlet, red, pink and orange hues" in food, cosmetics, and textiles.

The problem is the origins of cochineal extract:  a tiny, cactus-dwelling insect hand-collected mainly in Peru.

"The cochineal is a scale insect... from which the crimson-colour dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico, this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients." (Source - Wikipedia)
For many centuries, Cochineal has served as the traditional South American natural dye for reds and pinks. Per CochinealDye.com:
"Cochineal was so important that Montezuma levied an annual tribute of cochineal dye in the 15th century and cochineal was Mexico’s second most valuable export after silver. Cochineal was introduced into Europe by the Spanish in the 1500s and very rapidly became the dye of choice for expensive but desirable scarlet and red clothes for kings and nobles... Cochineal was replaced by synthetic dyes during the 1800s but is now seeing a pronounced resurgence of interest, with the increased use of non-synthetic, natural dyes."
Striving to avoid chemical dyes such as infamous red dye #40, Starbucks included cochineal extract in five of its popular treats: its strawberry frappuccino and strawberry-banana smoothie, and three bakery goodies,  the birthday-cake pop, mini-doughnut with pink icing, and red-velvet whoopee pie. 

(Ever dedicated to the visual appeal of its offerings, Starbucks opted for cochineal extract over beet juices to achieve red/pink perfection because beet-based dyes fade over time.)

The problem? Vegetarians and vegans didn't realize they were eating a byproduct of an insect , which is meat protein. Certainly, this info should be disclosed by Starbucks and all food retailers. Food products should always be clearly labeled to enable consumers to make well-informed choices.

The bigger problem for Starbucks, though, is that many Americans are repulsed by the thought of bugs in their Starbucks delectables. How very little most of us apparently understand about where our food comes from...  Observes Scientific-American:
"Why are Frappuccino lovers so upset? As a culture, we dine on fancy-sounding bottom-feeders so frequently that we forget that they eat bugs, and other unmentionables. Catfish, lobster, crabs, frogs, crawfish – not to mention free-range chickens or turkeys – all subsist primarily on insects and waste materials. We clothe our bodies in silk made by worms, and most of the fruits we consume develop from flowers pollinated by flies, wasps, or bees.
"Other cultures routinely supplement their protein intake with insects... In Thailand, it’s not uncommon to see food insects sold at roadside vendors, markets, or grocery stores. In other places, like Central America and Africa, locals consume various palm grubs and grasshoppers. Even the famously strict kosher dietary laws encourage eating certain types of locusts."
 Starbucks is reconsidering cochineal extract as an ingredient, though. Last week, CEO Howard Schultz wearily admitted to CBS This Morning:
"No good deed goes undone. We tried to embrace an all-natural method for this product. In fact, we discovered that most women in America wearing red lipstick have this ingredient. It's everywhere, it's all-natural. We are examining it and probably will reformulate (the drink). ... We're looking at (alternative ingredients). We're going to make the right decision."
Undoubtedly very soon, Starbucks' luscious strawberry sweets will no longer be longer be hued rosy pink by cochineal extract. And frappuccino lovers can rest easier, knowing that no insect-related ingredients taint their beverages.

Give credit where credit is due: Starbucks tried to get it right and they will correct this. And after all, part of this tempest in a green-and-white cup was caused by squeamish public ignorance of modern industrial food systems and alternatives. 


  1. I wonder how many consumers are aware of the use of shellac in foods and pharmaceuticals. Shellac is made from a secretion of the lac bug from India and Thailand.


    Anyone who thinks it doesn't contain bug parts is simply not well-informed. And it is commonly used in pharmaceuticals and various foods.



    Skittles, now having fifteen minutes of fame as a footnote in L'affaire Trayvon, was on the list. But like the big name hamburger stores that stopped using pink slime, they found a better formulation without it.