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Cochineal Dye Bugs Starbucks Customers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Pink food seems to be raising a lot of eyebrows lately. A few weeks ago, meat product “pink slime” became embroiled in debate, and now a new crimson challenger has stolen the limelight: Starbucks has come under fire for using the pink dye cochineal (carmine) in their Strawberry Frappuccino drink (blogs including NPR’s The Salt and Bug Girl have also covered this story).

Frappuchino, photo by author

Frappuccino, photo by author

What’s the issue? Well, cochineal is made from…insects.

Public outcry suggests that Starbucks, searching for artificial dye replacements, secretly swapped cochineal into the drink. The whistleblower, though, was an anonymous barista, who identified the name on a nutrition label. Starbucks has stated that they’re “reviewing alternative natural ingredients” for their drinks. But, vegan activists wish to have the dye removed, and coffee shop regulars grow nauseous at the thought of consuming the colored drink. “This is the quintessential modern day P.R. crisis,” remarked a public relations rep in USA Today.

Insects on the Menu

Why are Frappuccino lovers so upset? Last I checked, tequila bottles still had worms swirling at the bottom, joke shops still sold lollipops with scorpions and flies embedded in candy “amber,” and the truly adventurous could purchase chocolate covered ants or grasshoppers online. School reading lists everywhere still recommend How to Eat Fried Worms to grade-schoolers.

As a culture, we dine on fancy-sounding bottom-feeders so frequently that we forget that they eat bugs, and other unmentionables. Catfish, lobster, crabs, frogs, crawfish – not to mention free-range chickens or turkeys – all subsist primarily on insects and waste materials. We clothe our bodies in silk made by worms, and most of the fruits we consume develop from flowers pollinated by flies, wasps, or bees.

Insects on sale at Thai market - Credit: United Nations FAO | P.B. Durst

Insects on sale at Thai market - Credit: United Nations FAO | P.B. Durst

Other cultures routinely supplement their protein intake with insects. A 2008 United Nations pamphlet, titled Edible Forest Insects: Humans Bite Back, lays out some of the species used as food in the Asia-Pacific region. Cooking insects, such as giant water bugs, crickets, June bugs, and cicadas, are “…deep-fried, grilled over an open fire, parched and ground, or steamed in banana leaves and curried.” In Thailand, it’s not uncommon to see food insects sold at roadside vendors, markets, or grocery stores. In other places, like Central America and Africa, locals consume various palm grubs and grasshoppers. Even the famously strict kosher dietary laws encourage eating certain types of locusts.

Attraction / Repulsion

So, back to strawberry drinks and crushed insects: why did the cochineal bug create its crimson? Better to ask why plants and animals evolve colors in the first place. Many natural colorants function in one of two ways: either to attract, say, for a symbiotic species or pollinator; or to repel, as a chemical defense mechanism against predators. Red coloring, like that found in maple leaves, poisonous amphibians, or certain snakes,  transmits a distinct “Don’t Eat This!” warning. So, it shouldn’t surprise you that cochineal insects seem to have evolved their dye for similar reasons.

Caterpillar uses dye to brush off an ant Source: Science

Caterpillar uses dye to brush off an ant Source: Science

A team of researchers from Cornell and Ithaca Universities reported in Science (1980, 208, 1039-1042) confirmation of cochineal’s role as a chemical weapon against ants, one of their major predators. When the scientists doped sugary solutions with carmine, these treats were completely avoided by foraging ants. The paper also presented a unique twist to this story: carnivorous caterpillars that consume cochineal insects can later regurgitate their dye to ward off ant attackers.

Conjugation = Color



So, what does cochineal really look like? Like any dye, it has a chromophore (or “color bearer”), which generates its brilliant red color. Look over at the structure of cochineal (pictured, right). See how the three fused rings on the right have all those extra bonds in them? Dye molecules possess several conjugated bonds, alternating patterns of “single-double-single-double…” over long molecular distances. In general, the more bonds, the redder the color of the perceived (emitted) light, called a bathochromic or “red” shift.  Beta-carotene, the familiar deep orange coloring found in sweet potatoes and carrots, illustrates this well, with 11 conjugated double bonds. Other highly conjugated compounds you’ve likely encountered include indigo (9 bonds), the dye in blue jeans, and curcumin (10 bonds), a bright yellow compound found in curry powder.

Another related ruby dye, used since ancient times, was alizarin, originally isolated from the madder plant. If you look at the structure (right, bottom), you’ll realize the two are very similar. In fact, both dyes derive from a chemical family called the anthroquinones, three-ringed compounds with two C=O (ketone) linkages in the center. Alizarin’s claim to fame goes back 150 years, when it became the first naturally-isolated dye to be prepared by lab synthesis. Mauve, a historical account of the dye business penned by Simon Garfield, relates the story well: in the 1870’s, companies in England and Germany waged an industrial war over competing dye manufacturing processes, a battle which would later spur such medical advances as tissue staining and photodynamic therapy.

Dye Processing – Removing the Bad Stuff

Filters: Also good for coffee grounds. Source: Daily Shot

Filters: Also good for coffee grounds. Source: Daily Shot

For those uncertain – you’re not really consuming “bug parts” when you chow on carmine. To prepare the dyestuff, chemists rely on two main processes: extraction and filtration. Extraction may seem familiar already – it’s the old saying “like dissolves like.” Certain compounds are more water soluble, while others find their solubility in fats and oils. In cochineal’s case, extraction might be better stated as “opposites attract:” a high pH (basic) solution of ammonia, calcium carbonate, or aluminum hydroxide is used to leach the red dye out of the crushed bodies. To be sure we’ve caught all the little chunks, we turn to filtration, which separates solids from liquids using porous surfaces like paper, sand, or cloth. Just like that, it’s exit, exoskeleton!  Sayonara, scales! Arrivederci, antennae! The only part you’ll actually eat by day’s end is dye.

However, there might be tiny traces of hidden allergens lurking in there, because a few people report workplace asthma or a strong allergic reaction to bug-derived dyes. A recent patent (US2003/0199019) dealt with just this issue: researchers at Japanese firm San-Ei Gen treated crude cochineal extract with an enzyme called a protease to chop up problematic protein allergens, and later used a special adsorbent to wash away offending matter and further purify the dye.

Cochineal has been with us for centuries, and it’s already in food products. In fact, it’s usually labeled as an ingredient, and thus hidden in plain sight. Unless you’re among the few with allergic reactions, even to the protein-purified product, it’s probably just fine for you to consume.

To wrap up, I’ll relate another, more rational quote from the aforementioned USA Today piece, since it mirrors my exact thoughts on cochineal extract: “This is pretty far down on my list of outrageous food issues,” says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at NYU. Couldn’t have said it better myself.


See Arr Oh About the Author: See Arr Oh is a medicinal chemist working in industry. See Arr Oh blogs at Just Like Cooking and contributes to several other blogs, including Chemjobber, Totally Synthetic, and CENtral Science’s The Haystack and Newscripts Follow on Twitter @seearroh.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 23 Comments

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  1. 1. rangerjen 1:13 pm 04/5/2012

    Oh, if only the general public was aware of just how many insects and creepy crawlies they eat, wear, smear on their lips or inject into their bodies on a regular basis.

    Link to this
  2. 2. mikeorgan1955 2:53 pm 04/5/2012

    Ok own up who hasn’t swallowed an insect or two. When was the last time you ate a shrimp or is it suddenly different if it lives in the sea? Such hypocrisy is truly edifying (pun intended). So if you don’t like to eat insects or products thereof just don’t buy the product simple isn’t it.

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  3. 3. mikeorgan1955 2:56 pm 04/5/2012

    Oh and if women really knew where that musk comes from that gets in their perfume the subway would be a very bad place to be at 8am on a work day.

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  4. 4. salmon123 5:36 pm 04/5/2012

    The problem is that a food coloring such as cochineal is usually labeled as “natural colors”, and therefore impossible for consumers to know what is actually in their food.

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  5. 5. joevolcano 5:37 pm 04/5/2012

    What do you mean you’re not consuming “bug parts”? Bugs were crushed, yes? The dye was extracted from their bodies, yes? Filtered, yes? I get it’s not a “part” per se, but these are particles of matter that were generated from an animal and then extracted from them, yes? Then I would argue that indeed it is a bug “part”.

    And what do you mean: “Why are Frappuccino lovers so upset? Last I checked, tequila bottles still had worms swirling at the bottom, joke shops still sold lollipops with scorpions and flies embedded in candy “amber,” and the truly adventurous could purchase chocolate covered ants or grasshoppers online.” Yeah, and I don’t consume any of those things, but for tequila, which for the record does NOT have a worm in it. When was the last time you had tequila, See Arr Oh? You’re thinking of Mezcal, and only one commercial brand has a worm in it: Guisano Rojo. Now, I’m not a vegan, but you identify the vegans as being upset and then ask why EVERYBODY is also upset. So, kinda off there. Finally, I just want to know what’s in the food I eat and drink. If I wanted to eat bug-red frappicino, then fine, but don’t I have a right to know?

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  6. 6. mackenzie0158 6:11 pm 04/5/2012

    I certainly hope that customers of Starbucks are aware that their favorite coffee shop is hardly the only producer of food products that uses cochineal-sourced red dye. It is used in literally thousands of products, especially dairy products.

    Link to this
  7. 7. seearroh 8:36 pm 04/5/2012

    @rangerjen / mikeorgan / mackenzie – Yes, there sure are a lot of carmine-containing products out there!

    @salmon – The FDA released guidance in 2009 ( regarding labeling ingredients in food being clearly labeled “carmine” or “cochineal extract.” I’ve seen the label on red grapefruit juice, candy, popsicles, and meat labels.

    @joevolcano – The dye is just that, a dye. It’s chemically identical whether synthesized by human hands (1991), or isolated from the insect. Perhaps the metaphor wasn’t apt, but I’d argue that it’s not a part in the same way that antifreeze or brake fluid aren’t “parts” of a car. Also, you’re correct, the worm is more commonly used in mezcal. My mistake.

    Regarding the latter half of your comment, you do have a right to know, and Starbucks did indeed list cochineal on the packaging for the drink mix:

    Link to this
  8. 8. Ballaurena13 10:03 pm 04/5/2012

    Bugs might not sound appetizing but if people knew how bad dyes like red #40 really are for you they wouldn’t be complaining about its attempted replacements half as much. For me, upon hearing that they use insects for colorants instead of artificial dyes, I am suddenly inclined to go try a strawberry frappuccino when I never would have before, but then I am particularly sensitive to the ill effects of chemical food additives.

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  9. 9. seearroh 10:11 pm 04/5/2012

    @Ballaurena – Tell me more, if you come back: which dyes affect you? What happens? (rash, sickness?) Is it only with certain foods / products? I’m just curious, thanks!

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  10. 10. nhj317 10:37 pm 04/5/2012

    But is it Kosher?

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  11. 11. ChezJake 11:20 pm 04/5/2012

    We had this same brouhaha back before everyone was on the Internet (late ’80s, early ’90s) when the vegans and Kosher eaters discovered that the coloring in Ruby Red Grapefruit cocktail was also cochineal. I’m not sure if it still is or not.

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  12. 12. Bora Zivkovic 11:47 pm 04/5/2012

    Isn’t frappuccino full of cream, thus already a big no-no for vegans?

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  13. 13. seearroh 11:57 pm 04/5/2012

    @NHJ – Doesn’t look like it:

    @ChezJake – Magic Internet 8-Ball Says: Maybe (certain brands mentioned on vegetarian blogs include Dole, Tropicana, and Ocean Spray, but none of their corporate sites discretely mention the dye in the ‘Nutrition facts’)

    Link to this
  14. 14. seearroh 12:00 am 04/6/2012

    @BoraZ – I think the flavoring mix is separately added to your dairy of choice. I think you can get a soy milk frappuccino, and thus escape the creme.

    Link to this
  15. 15. lilbear 3:06 am 04/6/2012

    Lac (Cochineal Dye) is harvested by the indigenous, forest dwelling, peoples of Jharkhand–often women. It has been used as a dye since ancient times!

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  16. 16. Geopelia 10:33 am 04/6/2012

    In my young days, “nice girls” didn’t wear lipstick. “What man wants to kiss a girl with squashed bugs on her lips”, our elders said.

    And the royal Tyrian purple came from a sea snail.

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  17. 17. seearroh 1:33 pm 04/6/2012

    @Geopelia – Right you are on the snail. Careful, you might scoop me before the next post! : )

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  18. 18. daballa 3:32 pm 04/6/2012

    I personally don’t have a problem with this. I would much rather eat something natural than a synthetic dye.

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  19. 19. Bops 4:57 pm 04/6/2012

    It’s hard to find useful allergy information.
    I have a problem with hives from foods.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Desert Navy 7:52 am 04/9/2012

    Honey is bee spit at best, and where do you guys think they get the shellac coatings for medicines, vitamins and candies?

    And when you see the mechanical thresher machines moving across the plains ten across gathering grain do you ever see the guy in front that says “Look out Mr. Grasshopper, move Mr. Dove, we’re harvesting right now. Come back later?”

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  21. 21. Diesel67 12:26 am 04/10/2012

    If I’m not mistaken, carmine is a red dye from insects, and cochineal a yellow dye from snails. In any event, it’s NOT kosher. Four types (species? genera?) of locusts/grasshoppers are, but their identity has been lost over time. As a practical matter, no visible insects or insect parts or derivatives may be consumed by observant Jews, so it looks like we will have to give up the pleasure of Starbucks.

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  22. 22. seearroh 3:44 am 04/10/2012

    @Diesel67 – Carmine is right-on; cochineal is another name for the insect it comes from. The two names are sometimes used interchangeably for the same red dye.

    The snail dye I’m most familiar with is Tyrian purple, which was used by the Phoenicians, and which may have inspired purple garb in high office and high society.

    Most natural yellows are produced from plant roots, bark, or extracts from seeds and flowers.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Diesel67 1:09 am 04/12/2012

    @seearroh – The snail Murex trunculus appears to be the source of the blue dye related to Tyrian purple (maybe the same molecule changes color with pH or temperature) with which ancient, and now some modern, Jews dye their ritual fringes. The authority on this is Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, Chairman of the Biology Dep’t at Yeshiva University in New York.

    Link to this

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