The web is full of stories this morning about a food coloring Starbucks uses in its strawberries-and-cream Frappuccinos. The Seattle Times writes this morning that Starbucks “changed its Frappuccino mix a couple years ago, it made sure the new ingredients were dairy-free.” It did so by using cochineal extract, also known as carmine, which is made from the bodies of ground-up cochineal beetles indigenous to Latin America.
The Times reports that a vegan barista who works for Starbucks sent a picture of the sauce’s ingredient list to a vegetarian blog called www.ThisDishIsVegetarian.com, which posted it earlier this month. The revelation sparked some criticism from advocacy groups questioning the practice.
“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,” said spokesman Jim Olson.
The base also is used in Starbucks’ strawberry smoothies, he said, and the insect-derived extract is in some other foods and drinks the chain sells, including its red velvet whoopie pies.
The extract is deemed safe by the FDA, but does not appear on labels in restaurants. Typically restaurants are exempt from food labeling that applies to packaged foods under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. This means that if you didn’t think to ask about the extract, then you would have no way of knowing that it was used. Neither does the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 apply to restaraunts selling non-packaged foods.
The cochineal extract does appear on packaged foods ingredient lists. This is a change as of early 2011 when new rules from the FDA stopped the practice of labeling cochineal extract as “artificial colors” or “color added.”
For vegans, Jews who keep kosher, and the small segment of the population who are allergic to cochineal extract read the label of packaged foods, but be leery of items served at fast food chains and restaurants.
Following the news of pink slime, which many consumers were also unaware of because of how it appears on the label, it is becoming apparent that few of us know exactly what is in the food we buy. The question becomes whether the right to know would quell safe innovation in processed foods. Cochineal extract is a safe product, it just sounds gross to think of drinking crushed insects.
*Update: This article was picked-up by the Washington Post. Read more here.*
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