What Is Carmine and Why Is Starbucks Taking It Out of Its Products?

Photo: Alex Guerrero/Flickr.

You may have heard that Starbucks will be changing the dye it uses in some of its products like the Strawberries & Cream Frappuccino, the Strawberry Banana Smoothie and the Red Velvet Whoopie Pie. The change isn’t because the dye they have been using is artificial. In fact the dye, known as carmine or cochineal, is quite natural. It’s made from the extracts of dried bodies of the Coccus cacti bug.

Yes, the natural food coloring carmine is made from bugs. Take a moment to get the “ewwwwwws” out, but then remember that while eating bugs is gross to us culturally, it’s common in many areas of the world. The only thing that makes eating a bug grosser than eating a chicken is that we’ve been raised to believe it’s grosser.

Why Starbucks Is Ditching Carmine

So why did consumers get upset over a natural food dye being used in Starbucks’ products? Sure, there were some people who were simply grossed out to know what the food dye was derived from, but the response was more for the vegetarians and vegans who don’t want to eat bugs.

Those on strict vegetarian or vegan diets don’t want to eat any product for which a living creature had to lose its life. Those of us omnivores who might have an understanding and a respect for vegetarians and vegans may have never thought about the desire to not harm bugs. I know I’ve always thought of it as an animal thing, not an “any living creature” thing. But, it makes sense when I think it through.

Starbucks took swift action on this issue. Company officials have pledged to transition “to lycopene, a natural, tomato-based extract, in the strawberry sauce (base) used in our Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino blended beverage and Strawberry Banana Smoothie.” They also will be transitioning from “cochineal extract in our food offerings which currently contain it (Raspberry Swirl Cake, Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing, and Red Velvet Whoopie Pie).”

Carmine Is Everywhere

Starbucks, of course, isn’t the only food company that uses the dye. If you see the words “Cochineal,” “Cochineal Extract,” “Carmine,” “Crimson Lake,” “Natural Red 4,” “C.I. 75470,” or “E120,” in an ingredients list, this red bug dye is in the food. Also, a food labeled with “natural colorings” may also contain it.

If you’re not concerned about eating bugs, then this dye is certainly preferable to artificial dyes. But, if you’re a vegan, vegetarian, have an allergic reaction to carmine, or a religious reason to not eat bugs, you’ll want to keep an eye out for any of those words in the ingredients of the red-dyed foods you consume.

Do you have a problem with carmine being in food? If you do, is it simply because of the gross-out factor or does your objection have a deeper root?