Starbucks and the great beetle extract controversy

March 30, 2012

Beetle juice? In a frappuccino?


Some Starbucks patrons got the heebies when they learned the coffee company uses beetle extract for food coloring. (Seth Perlman/AP/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The news of the food coloring erupted this week with outcries from vegans and vegetarians who were under the assumption that a soy version of the drink did not contain animal products.

The dye, made of the crushed skin and bodies of the Peruvian cochineal bug, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is hailed by some as a natural coloring. In 2009, the FDA passed a law requiring cochineal extract to be included on ingredient labels, though it does not require an explanation that it is derived from bugs.

But as Connie Thompson of KPIC found, the ingredient can be found in a wide range of products, from yogurt to cheese.

The revelation of Starbucks’s dye choice is just the latest government-approved food that has left many Americans with concerns over what they are ingesting.


Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (L), Texas Governor Rick Perry (C) and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R) examine a package of the beef product known as pink slime or lean finely textured beef during a tour of Beef Products Inc.'s plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska March 29, 2012. (REUTERS)

In the same vein, the FDA will decide today whether to ban BPA, a plastic additive, from food packaging. The issue of whether the additive can leach into foods and cause health concerns has been debated for years, though the government has found it’s very unlikely that BPA poses a health risk in recent studies, NPR reports.

It is hard to say whether the string of events will have any impact on consumer behavior, though Starbucks has experienced a huge backlash in the last few days. The company issued a statement defending its choice but also mentioning it will review other alternatives:

As a company, we always strive to exceed our customers’ expectations and we take their feedback very seriously. Based on recent customer feedback, we learned that we fell short of these expectations by using cochineal extract.

Cochineal extract is a commonly used ingredient and is a natural, FDA-approved colorant found in a wide variety of food and beverage products in the U.S.

We use the extract in the strawberry base for our Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino® blended beverage, Strawberry Smoothies and three food items — the Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing, and Red Velvet Whoopee Pie. While it is a safe, sterilized product that poses no health risk, we are reviewing alternative natural ingredients.

The company is in a sticky situation. In its push to find a more natural additive, it stumbled upon a product that may just gross people out. So which is better, chemical-free or unappetizing? “Pink slime” or the possibility of e-coli?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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