Closeup Picture: The Red Bugs in Your Starbucks Frappuccino

Image by University of Turin, Italy

Tiny red bugs were all the rage this week as news of their presence in Starbucks strawberry drink spread across the web. The news was broken by a vegan barista who shared it with vegetarian blogs. Starbucks did not deny:

“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…”

What exactly is cochineal, and why in the world are we seeing it in our food supply?

What you need to know:

The above image is a 10X zoom image of the female cochineal insect (Dactylpius Coccus), producer of what has been considered for centuries the best red dye in the world.

Hailing from Aztec Mexcio, the female cochineal insects set up shop on cactii, where they breed and eat. The males live for just one short week to reproduce and then die.

Hundreds of years ago, the Aztecs would collect the bugs, briefly boil them in water, dry them in the sun and then pulverize them into a fine scarlet powder known as cochineal or carmine. The powder was used to dye royal garments. It was coveted by the Spanish conquistadors who brought it back to Europe.

The relevant pigment in the bugs is a bitter chemical called carminic acid.  Food manufacturers began using it about 100 years ago to add luster to products such as pork sausages, dried shrimp, candies, jams, and maraschino cherries.

As food science progressed, cheaper artificial dyes Red #2 and Red #40 replaced the natural cochineal until its production became uneconomical.

However, fears over the carcinogenic effects of artificial food coloring helped cochineal stage a comeback, and it is now featured in various food products, including said strawberry frap.

Although carmine is considered safe by the FDA, about 1 in 10,000 people develop some sort of allergic reaction when consuming it. As of  January 2011, the FDA has mandated all foods and cosmetics using cochineal to explicitly state its presence in the ingredient list.

This labeling requirement is beneficial to vegetarians, Jews and Muslims who wish to stay away from bugs. Interestingly, carmine is considered kosher by observant jews.

What to do at the supermarket:

If you wish to avoid this coloring, look for the following on the ingredient list – Carmine, Cochineal, E210 E120.

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  • Mglombard

    Very informative!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carey-Duryea/568186894 Carey Duryea

    i’m going to get one right now! not only to you get to participate in killing bugs.. you get the opportunity to see pretty drink colors.. i do appreciate Starbucks stance on this. :)   kinda like yes.. you eat bugs its natural .. chew your meals 

  • Jakmmo

    Why the Hell don’t they just use real strawberries for the coloring? Jesus…

    • Anonymous

      Because strawberries are more expensive and labor intensive to produce and will not preserve as well

      • anonymous

        with a big company like starbucks, they can afford to use fresh strawberries. also, you’d be surprised how long strawberries can hold up frozen. there are a lot of people coming in to starbucks each day too, so you can almost guarantee that strawberries come in every 3-5 days. i’m a barista at a pretty busy coffee shop and we use fresh strawberries and puree them for our frap knock-offs. they’re just major penny pinchers when they shouldn’t be.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1223926645 Blake Romero

          You don’t really understand how businesses work, do you? When it comes to large corporations, saving pennies matters A LOT. Not to mention that the price for that particular drink would go up due to using a more expensive ingredient. This hurts the customer and, lets face it, most people really don’t give a crap if they’re ingesting little bugs that they can’t even see. We ingest things we don’t see on a daily basis. 

          • Meg

            Does this somehow make it okay? Ignorance is bliss? We are the consumers; if we refused to purchase this product, you can bet they would invest the extra money. But instead of creating demand for a product for consumers that does not contain “little bugs they can’t even see” they should just pay the $4.50 (which is not a price targeted towards penny pinching consumers, but those who pay a premium for product ALREADY) and accept?

          • Joshuarenae

            Can you guys read? The bugs are EXPENSIVE coloring, they are premium because they are natural. I think it’s gross, but Starbucks is trying to do the RIGHT thing, as they have done in many business decisions.

          • mschmidt48

            @Blake Romero; You don’t understand people do you. If you’re going to Starbucks to get your coffee I seriously doubt if you’re very concerned how expensive your Barista created cup of coffee costs. I buy a 12 oz bag of whole bean coffee for $3.99 which easily makes over 100 cups of high quality coffee at home. That’s around 4 cents a cup and if I add anything else I’d be hard pressed to have invested a quarter in my drink. People go into Starbucks and spend over what I paid for the whole bag of beans on one single coffee beverage and don’t blink an eye. Most people I know that go to Starbucks go there to try to impress their friends and family

        • Lisa, Cape Cod

          especially for what they charge for a drink there.

        • Annonymous

          I used to work for McDonalds, at the corporate level.  They get into huge fights over fractions of a cent because when you move billions of units, those fractions of a cent add up to incredibly huge amounts of money.

      • anonymous

        with a big company like starbucks, they can afford to use fresh strawberries. also, you’d be surprised how long strawberries can hold up frozen. there are a lot of people coming in to starbucks each day too, so you can almost guarantee that strawberries come in every 3-5 days. i’m a barista at a pretty busy coffee shop and we use fresh strawberries and puree them for our frap knock-offs. they’re just major penny pinchers when they shouldn’t be.

      • Msj102000

        I’d take a frozen strawberry. That’s economical enough for a $4-$5 drink.

    • Anonymous
      • Elizabeth

        You DO understand that’s a satirical website, right?

    • Genevieve

      Customers complained that the color wasn’t red enough….

      • Burls

        That’s a big part of it. They lose more customers because it doesn’t look right than they do with it in there. And they want it to be natural to please more people. This is the way they accomplish it. another needless alarmist over reaction.

    • lol

      gotta cut corners to keep the hookers around for the execs

  • Health4a

    You go Starbucks! Better than red 40 food dye…. I’m all for bug dye!

    • aisha

      red 40 food dye is the same as cochineal!! or should i say red 40 is cochineal!! it’s all a bug!!

      • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

        No it’s not. Red 40 is a synthetic dye, a petroleum derivative.

  • Anonymous
    • Yup

      dont post links please

  • Miniwii

    iam so sick .. class action …

    • Joshuarenae

      Did u read the article?

  • Miniwii

    iam so sick .. class action …

  • JC Green

    I’ll take a natural dye made from insects than an artificial dye made from chemicals any day. Strawberries don’t have a very vibrant color when blended, and the product would probably look unappetizing without some added coloring agent.

  • Dashanna

    Disgusting!

  • Hey_anna

    @ca37f1cc6f582629e875ce2bb0259e56:disqus — how very American to mention lawsuits… why?  who got hurt?  nobody, that’s who… an odd reaction for someone who reads this blog – most of us want more natural, not less.

    Way to go Starbucks, a big corporation for a change actually using a natural (or “more natural”) product rather than the cheaper and more processed alternative.

  • Renfield

    I can understand protesting this because of religous beliefs or being vegetarian. However if that is your stance you should be aware that all processed foods can contain insect parts and rodent hairs, etc. The FDA allows a small percentage of foriegn materials in all processed foods. Therefore you are getting more than whats on the label with most foods ( in microscopic quantities ). It should be listed as an ingredient, but buyer beware.

  • Shannnena1

    Yes, very informative and natural is best but still kinda gross!

  • Aznicholette

    Way to go Starbucks! Better to go with a red dye from nature than a chemical!
    For those of you complaining, for other than religious or health teasons, get over it. Unless you eat only food you grow and prepare from scratch, you are eating bugs every day…. just ask the FDA…..

    • k78

      My daughter had bought one before it came out about the bugs being used, it was really good. She bought one after they removed the bugs from it and it wasn’t all that great…even with knowing that the other one had bugs used in it, we prefer they use them. As someone who has issues with bugs I cannot believe that we like the bugs better but, hey the truth is the truth. There are bugs in everything people eat. There are certain percentages of all foods that can be anything, even floor sweepings. So, why everyone is complaining is beyond me…

  • Aznicholette

    Way to go Starbucks! Better to go with a red dye from nature than a chemical!
    For those of you complaining, for other than religious or health teasons, get over it. Unless you eat only food you grow and prepare from scratch, you are eating bugs every day…. just ask the FDA…..

  • Kathy

    Makes me sick. I love a starbucks mocha but will never buy anything red in color.

  • Lovinxyoohx3

    Why does it matter what color it is? It doesn’t. The dye has nothing to do with its flavor. I rather not eat bugs or chemicals.

  • Legalrn

    If u don’t like the natural dye, then don’t go to Starbuck’s! Make your drinks @ home & stop complaining

    • ThankYouKindly

      If you don’t like that people have opinions that are not positive, then maybe you shouldn’t do forums at all.

      • Anon

        Put –> kettle = you’re black!

  • justme

    Strawberries and creme frappuccinos are icky tasting anyways. Plus, the emulsifier used the all Starbucks Frappuccino beverages is probably made from unnatural ingredients, and syrups are somewhat artificial as well. So with or without bugs or chemicals, the drink is less than organic. Go for a plain latte, or sweeten it with honey or sugar in the raw. Yumm (:

  • Chase

    Just make your own with fresh ingredients, starbucks and jamba juice just rip you off.

  • Raymond

    This is really cool. Even though the title had me thinking it was a bug ifestation.

  • parisbreakfast

    Oh cochineal is NOTHING!!
    the use of Carmine goes back hundreds if not thousands of years
    I worked for a while in a pigment store (European-based)
    it’s a natural dye as opposed to an UN-natural dye full of toxic chemicals.
    It’s used in MANY food products and as far as I know is harmless.

  • Nickybdreamin

    Why as Americans are we so obsessed with our food looking perfect? Why do we need dyes to enhance how our food looks? It’s ridiculous. I make smoothies everyday for breakfast and they look like green slime, but taste amazing. Make them at home and save a buck, and even a bug or two.

    • Missashleyvictoria

      Because we have been groomed to be superficial and uneasily pleased, always needing bigger, better, and brighter.

  • Anon

    This whole what’s in your food conversation is pointless in the long haul. WE ALL ingest, wear and wash ourselves with and in mass made products that contain things that because of our own particular chemistry is just not a good idea for to use. Being told what’s “in It” should be THE requirement of corporate America. CHOOSING is ours!!!! Stop being shocked and quit being passive. Isn’t that why you use Fooducate?

    • Grethel

      LOL indeed we do! God Bless America that we have the freedom to choose. 5 Stars to Starbucks for using, natural/organic whatever you want to call it, dyes that will not harm my stomach, pancreas, liver, colon, intestines and more organs.
      We eat too many chemicals in our food on a daily basis, as it is.
      To those of you that buy at Whole Foods think… Are you buying bugs with your vegetables? Or is it that Whole Foods is just another corporation lying to its customers and selling vegetables that come from the same vendors that both Lucky and Safeway buy from?
      If any of you choose to buy fraps from Starbucks GOOD FOR YOU! If you choose not to, GOOD FOR YOU!

  • larry

    As if real strawberries never have any bugs in them. If they relied just on strawberry for color they would consume mass quantities and I assure you they wouldn’t take the time, or the waste involved to ensure they are bug free.

    Read your labels folks. Yogurt, over cream, candy, flavored applesauce to name just a few use chemicals or bugs to maker them pretty.

    If I had a penny for every bug I’d eaten I would be a 1%er

  • Converse27911

    My Mom Always Told Me That Bugs Taste Like Chicken So Yy Are They In Fruit Drinks ? . :)

  • Converse27911

    If Your Complaining About The Bugs Then You’ll Have To Cut A Lot Of Things Out If Your Diet . There’s Ground Up Roaches In Chocolate . But It’s Still Delicious =) . Mwahahahahaha ! .

  • Dfrisicaro2

    How about beet powder, that is what I use. Maybe cheaper than strawberries?

  • Taeboholic

    It seem gross but reading through the whole article it seem safer than artificial food coloring. My only question is do these bugs carry any disease. Other than that there are a lot of grosser things in ethnic foods. In a way this is an ethnic food ingredient if it originate from ancient Aztecs. There are worms used to make certain cheeses. As long as they are not disease carrying bugs, I guess it’s okay. Now do we have information on that?

  • Troyrieger

    Very interesting

    • Sophiac1

      That’s it !!! I’m not eating anymore hearing about all these bugs and chemicals in my food making me hill .

  • Gfynaut

    A lot of people are allergic to strawberries. What’s the big deal? People have been eating bugs a very looooong time. Plus they are boiled and dried.

  • Jkdwong

    Really people, what did you think those were made of? I make smoothies at home with fresh fruit all the time but like the occasional not so good for you strawberries and cream. You can tell it’s not made with fresh strawberries. Humans have eaten bugs for thousands of years. In Asia you see fried grasshoppers on the streets being sold by venders. Yuck but whatever.

  • Fohnp

    Sounds like its better to eat bugs then art. Food dye…at least it’s natural!!

  • Jasflund

    I can’t believe that there’s so much focus on naturals bugs in food. What about all the chemicals like poisons, nitrates, sulfides, as well as, water and air pollution, all the salt and sugars that are killing people. Wouldn’t it make sense to focus on all the junk food that is making millions and millions of people sick with heart disease, cancer, and diabetes?

  • Bryan

    Actually, cochoneal is not kosher according to observant jews, and its presence is a common reason for products to be refused kosher certification.

  • Tridentine Avenger

    The article talks about the religious requirements of Muslims and Jews.  What I wanna know is, can I as an observant Catholic drink one of these drinks with bug coloring on a Friday during Lent?

    • Craftycathy

      No, as an observant Catholic, you can’t drink one of these drinks on Fridays during Lent. But, at least there’s only one more Friday to go this year.

  • Nicolbie

    I first saw the carmine ingredient on Fooducate for Activia yogurt. Ever since, I’ve noticed it in a body wash I have too! And to see this picture, it gives me the creeps! :(

  • Tataroo

    I would choose bugs i dont see or feel over chemicals i dont see that are slowly killing us. i wanna see headlines stating the chemicals the FDA allows in our foods are causing and aiding obesity and multitudes of illnesses like diabetis and allergic reactions..not the microscopic creatures God intended for us to use as the cause of OUTrage in overpriced coffee.

  • Rosepedal67

    Never mind the crushed beetles in you frap – don’t most “natural strawberry flavored” foods include castoreum? Mmmm yummy beaver anal gland secretions with urine mixed in! Why don’t the vegans fuss about that? I don’t eat anything with natural favors, since it is truly alarming what the FDA allows!

  • memiminzz01235

    why don’t we just follow europe’s wonderful example? in europe, a substance needs to be proven SAFE for it to be APPROVED. however, in america, a substance needs to be proven DANGEROUS for it to be BANNED. this is why europe uses many natural colorings. if they used the colorings considered ‘safe’ in america, they would be required to put big warning labels on the product. this hurts their sales of the product to greatly for them to do so; they will save more money using natural colorings. boo america! we must fight for this to change!

  • memiminzz01235

    why don’t we just follow europe’s wonderful example? in europe, a substance needs to be proven SAFE for it to be APPROVED. however, in america, a substance needs to be proven DANGEROUS for it to be BANNED. this is why europe uses many natural colorings. if they used the colorings considered ‘safe’ in america, they would be required to put big warning labels on the product. this hurts their sales of the product to greatly for them to do so; they will save more money using natural colorings. boo america! we must fight for this to change!

    • Just Saying

      I have to agree. We, as Americams, do have it backwards.  That being said, I would rather eat God’s bugs than man’s chemicals. 

  • Msp

    Is that what we have been drinking. That’s gross.

    By the way yogurt would have similar bacteria white in color if you zoom it in at 10x.

    I still believe, label all the ingredients and let the people make a choice.

  • Msp

    Is that what we have been drinking. That’s gross.

    By the way yogurt would have similar bacteria white in color if you zoom it in at 10x.

    I still believe, label all the ingredients and let the people make a choice.

  • Shakeyourcass

    They could use beets for their natural food coloring :)

  • guest

    Bugs are full of protein they’re good for you, people are such pussies

  • Globetrotter

    Give me the bugs over artificial coloring anytime and I’ll be happy (and healthy). And the protein from bugs in general is much better than muscle from animals, it is good for nature, too.

  • Andrew

    Protein

  • Jose_n1

    I think I would prefer this coloring method over artificial dyes

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  • Kiowskil

    Always a surprise…now Bugs in our food….

  • Robertdel

    Typical reason why I avoid buying almost anything from large chains.  The fractions of pennies they skim by selling huge volumes of overpriced crap to the 99% suckers is what keeps the 1% at the top.  The bug, no bug debate is a bit boring but really guys – $4.50 a cup?  Just buy a drink made from REAL ingredients from a local vendor…

  • Anonymous

    No wonder those were so tasty! Oh wait, they probably still are… I just don’t touch the stuff. 

  • Anonymous
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  • ncsquare

    Omg…… does it need to be red???

  • Anonymous#2

    To everyone saying make your own drinks at home, that’s all good and well, but I go to Starbucks because I’m god-awful at making smoothies. And coffee for that matter. So I’d rather eat a protein (at least somewhat) filled drink that tastes great, than a grainy, awful tasting one.

  • Me

    It’s always amusing to me that artificial colors can cause far more health risk than a natural dye but that doesn’t upset anyone. Bugs or insects are a staple in many countries but Americans with all our misconception have problems with them. Really all the additives that cause major health problems are consumed every day without any fuss in this country.

  • Nansk8s

    What’s the big deal? Just a little added protein.

  • Phoenixsuns

    These bugs aren’t harmful to most people so why does it matter? Isn’t it good that we have natural food coloring and not artificial?? So in a way isn’t this good? I mean it’s not like the bugs are alive.

  • broadenyourhorizons

    anyone who is complaining about these red bugs youve probably been consuming for years… if any of you smoke which i would bet a large handful of you do.. then i think you have more serious things to worry about. you should probably look up the chemicals you are inhaling. not to mention, the spiders you are eating in your sleep. or the air outside that some of you in large metropolis’ are filling your lungs with.  end of story you arent sick from these bugs but you are from plenty other hings like your over processed microwave dinners and your fast food you get in a hurry. deal with youll die of something eventually be happy in life not so darn drab

  • Foodluva

    Gross! That’s in my food!!!!!!??!?!

  • Christopher

    don’t you know if almost all food contains bugs? And bugs make food taste good….

  • Christopher

    don’t you know if almost all food contains bugs? And bugs make food taste good….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=701811355 Katie Tasky

    I work at Starbucks and after reading this around on the internet, I decided to take a look at the ingredients list in the strawberry base. It’s got real strawberries, that’s for sure. It’s got sugar, and water. And in the case of the boxes I’ve worked with and looked at, the coloring is tomato based, not bugs.
    Meanwhile, the Raspberry flavored syrup is completely artificial in flavor and color. Most of their flavored syrups are.

    food for thought.

  • Was123

    complaine complain do you have any idea whats in half the food you eat….lol

  • Thad

    Beet juice is often used for natural coloring in foods

  • Tysalot

    there should not be a problem with eating the bug parts they have a lot of protein than  meat per ounce you eat bug parts in mostly every thing you consume. on average you consume 27 ounces of bug parts in a year!!! if you don’t want bugs in your food don’t buy food that you know has bugs in it and stop complanig

  • george

    What are the government regulations concerning rodent hairs and droppings, and insects in flour?

  • Alejandra

    Really strawberries are awsome if you cant afford to use them then dont make the drinks at all I know about your little biusness and stuff dont us people deserve to eat healthy and none of this crap I am dissapointed of what this world has comr to for money pieces of paper when you die how are you ganna use it you cant cuz ur dead!!!

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  • jimmer

    So what’s point? Is this a call to nix cochineal completely from food sources? If allergies are the concern, then why not sterilize pollinating flowers since they affect a far greater rate of people than cochineal as far as reactions go. Flowers may be “natural”, but so is cochineal. Are we supposed to be grosed out by the image above of, most likely, living lab specimens? If that’s off-putting, take a 1000x zoom of raw or pasteurized milk, a vegetable from the market. Blake Romero (comment below) draws attention to this exact point. I would applaud Starbucks (as a vegetarian) for using low-industrial, naturally based dyes such as cochineal as a substitute for red 06 or orange 03.

  • Kevl

    Albuquerque. See I can do it, too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/snobrien Sean O’Brien

    significantly less than the number of people that develop allergies to grains… so strange that people have no problem eating foods they have never seen grown, processed and chemically treated, but show them how something fairly natural looks and they are disgusted.

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  • Femaledeer

    Starbucks has changed this – read on and please post so readers don’t automatically think Starbucks has bugs in their drinks… seriously.

    http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/story/2012-04-19/starbucks-no-red-dye-drinks/54414032/1

  • Tracy

    Ok people I’m not remotely concerned about eating ground up tiny bugs and if the veg-heads have a problem with this then they might as well starve to death because yeast and other microorganisms are living creatures too and they are in everything we eat!

  • ereck

    It takes about 70,000 insects to create one pound of carmine. These insects are killed by exposing them to heat. Thousands upon thousands of beetles are grown, harvested and killed at once. The only reason it is so inexpensive is because the beetles are grown and harvested by some of the poorest people on the planet. The process is very labor intensive. This is very different from eating an occasional bug in your cereal. And if you are choosing not to eat animals for ethical reasons, then killing less animals by not eating carmine makes perfect sense. Not to mention that tons of nopal (the favored cactus plant of the cochineal) is wasted for this process even though nopal is highly nutritious.

  • thehotzip

    The point isn’t whether or not if it’s REAL strawberries: it’s the fact that they are using ANY type of dye to colour their product. So, to me, the question should be WHY USE DYE AT ALL????!!!! Natural strawberries are pale anyways when mixed or blended into any kind of base, so why the hot need to make it SO red?! That is the stupid part.

  • KB

    Wow how disturbing.

  • Anonymous

    By the way, Carmine is known as E120, not E210.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E120

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      Thanks for spotting that!

  • Kenooster

    Let’s get rid of food coloring additives entirely! They add cost and possible (and in some cases probable and definite) health threats, just for cosmetics.

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  • Christy

    Most strawberry yogurts even have Carmine in them. I know the yoplait brand does anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Miltapher Amelia Ebert

    I am not opposed to Starbucks using natural dye made from bugs. I have been aware of the bugs before reading this. Artificial colors are not good for you and there has been studies done that links them to cancers and other health problems. The little insects don’t harm you.

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  • Alyssa

    I don’t really see a problem with this. Ancient peoples have been grinding up flowers and insects for dye for centuries. I pick the bugs over artificial petrolium based dyes any day.

  • gs

    I’d be happy to eat those little red bugs any day rather than red dye, especially RED #40. But, like many commenter, I will never fully grasp the need to color our food, make it brighter, more shiny etc.

  • jisent16

    FKDc – Recently i was so low on $$ and debits were killing me from all sides. that was UNTIL I learned to earn money.. on the INTERNET! I landed on surveymoneymaker d-o-t net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely i’ve been greatly more able to pay my bills! I am so glad i did this!!! zkH0

  • http://www.santabarbarasoulfood.com WowLookWhosCooking

    The bottom line is if you really want to know whats in there, you have to make it yourself.

  • Judi Wilson Jackson

    I would love to read your article but your hover button with Pinterest, Facebook, etc is horribly annoying and it will not disengage. I can only read three lines at a time on my ipad. :-/ moving it to the bottom would be MUCH MORE HELPFUL!!!!!!

  • Ari

    I’d rather consume ground up bugs than known carcinogens lmao

  • santojy

    I cannot imagine the source of the statement that Jewish law allows carmine. Bugs are never kosher. I will check and try to follow up with you here. ~ John Santo