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.
Starbucks is hardly the only one. Cochineal extract and a similar ingredient called carmine, also made from the insects, are bright red and can be found in fruit juices, gelatins and other foods, as well as many makeup products. They were used for red dye in Mexico before the Spaniards arrived, and the Italian liqueur Campari originally contained carmine dye.
Tropicana's website lists carmine as a colorant in its non-refrigerated ruby red grapefruit juice, and Dole lists cochineal extract as an ingredient in some of its fruit-in-gel products.
Three years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said food and cosmetic products must declare on their labels that they contain cochineal extract or carmine. The rule went into effect in early 2011.
Until then, the insect additives often were listed as "artificial colors" or "color added."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an activist group that pushed the FDA for the new labeling requirement, said the agency should have banned the colorants altogether or at least required that the labels explain that they come from insects.
"All food companies would be well advised to color their foods with real food and not either artificial dyes or an ostensibly natural dye like carmine," said the center's spokesman, Jeff Cronin.
In the case of Starbucks' strawberry Frappuccinos, he said, "I bet real strawberries could be used. Why simulate the color of strawberries when you could probably get a pretty good result with strawberries or beet juice or something that won't concern your customers?"
Cochineal extract and carmine cause allergic reactions in a small segment of the population, he said, and are off-limits for most Jews who keep kosher and vegans and vegetarians, who do not eat animals.
Joe M. Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University, remembers Ben & Jerry's taking the cochineal-derived color out of its Cherry Garcia ice cream to make it kosher and to make its ingredient label easier to understand.
Cochineal colorants provide "fairly stable color compared to beet and red cabbage juice," he said. "Basically, (vegetable dyes) bleach. In natural markets, people have gotten used to the fact that colors are not as vibrant as when they used synthetic colors."
From the March 29, 2012, Prepared Foods’ Daily Update