Controversial 'bug extract' coloring not unique to Starbucks

Recent publicity about a natural additive used at Starbucks is giving many customers the creeps. Turns out the food coloring in some of Starbucks' food and beverages is made from bugs. But is it really as gross as it sounds?

On the surface, the ingredient cochineal extract may not sound like a big deal at all -- until you learn what it means. Cochineal is a bug native to Peru. Color extracted from the bug's skin and body -- and approved by the Food and Drug Administration -- is commonly used to enhance food color.

In the past, food manufacturers have simply labeled it "natural coloring" on the ingredient list. But for some people, cochineal causes allergic reaction. Others have religious reasons for not consuming certain animals products. And vegans don't eat anything at all that comes from an animal, not even the skins of dried bugs.

People need to know what they're eating.

Since 2009, the FDA has required the specific ingredient listings of either Cochineal Extract, or Carmine. But until recently, it's safe to say most Starbucks lovers had no idea that cochineal extract is primarily responsible for that pretty pink in Starbucks' Strawberry & Creme Frappuccino. In response to complaints from vegan customers who learned of the practice, Starbucks spokesman Linda Mills issued a statement:

"At Starbucks, we have the goal to minimize artificial ingredients in our products. The strawberry base for our Strawberries & Crme 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. "

I decided to visit a local grocery store to see what other companies might be doing the same thing. My photographer and I checked the labels on fruit drinks, soft drinks, frozen desserts, candy, condiments and dairy products. The vast majority of the red and pink colored foods we found, contained Red Dye #40. A common coloring agent derived from petrochemicals - chemicals made from petroleum.

But the label on Kaukauna brand spreadable Port Wine and Cheddar cheese lists carmine as an added color. And a lot of yogurt lovers might be surprised to know that carmine is also a coloring used in several flavors of Activia. Dannon, which makes Activia, told me the natural coloring is used by a lot of food manufacturers.

"It's not bugs," insisted Dannon Public Relations Director Michael Neuwirth. "Carmine is a color derived from insects and it's done under food-safe manufacturing conditions."

Consumer and food safety advocate say unless you're allergic or have dietary restrictions, carmine and cochineal extract are no reason for concern. But they applaud the growing number of food manufacturers who use actual food, such as extracts of beets and carrots, to color our food and beverages.

"Natural, plant based food dyes are abundant," said Jeff Cronin, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"It would be good for most food manufacturers to switch to safer natural colorings instead of carmine or artificial food dyes like Red 40."