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,