When Starbucks changed its Frappuccino mix a couple years ago, it made sure the new ingredients were dairy free. But no one said anything about being bug free.
Turns out the strawberry sauce used in strawberries-and-creme Frappuccinos contains cochineal extract, which is made from the bodies of ground-up insects indigenous to Latin America.
A vegan barista who works for Starbucks sent a picture of the sauce's ingredient list to a vegetarian blog site 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.
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."
Now Cherry Garcia's label lists "fruit and vegetable concentrates" for color.
Other red foods that are more specific include Whole Foods' 365-brand "pink lemon aid," which includes sweet potato, red radish, cherry and apple extracts and Fuze strawberry guava's chokeberry and carrot extracts.
Crush orange soda and Minute Maid fruit punch are more old-fashioned. They use red dye No. 40.