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Starbucks Admits Its Mistake in Hiding the Use of Cochineal Beetle Extract From Customers

Christopher Witrak

Vegans and other vegetarians will be happy to know that, yesterday, Starbucks's (SBUX) company president Cliff Burrows made a de facto apology to  vegans and others vegetarians, who were dismayed upon learning about the company's usage of cochineal insect extract to give its  Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos and Strawberry Smoothies its pink coloring. Vegans will also be happy to know that Burrows also stated that the company has begun reviewing "alternative natural ingredients" for the drinks. Here is the official press release from Starbucks.

Why did Starbucks have to make this apology in the first place, and how did it anger vegans?

Vegans celebrated when in May of 2011  Starbucks announced its new “However-You-Want-It Frappuccino." Starbucks baristas could now make frappuccinos and smoothies with soy milk, and the drinks would now be vegan-friendly, meaning they would not contain ingredients derived from animals or other living creatures. Vegans responded enthusiastically. Eric Fortney, co-founder and writer for ThisDishIsVeg.com, wrote in his article covering the announcement by Starbucks (you can view Starbucks’s press release here):

However, the media bugged out when Daelyn Fortney, co-founder and writer for ThisDishIsVeg, reported that Starbucks misled the general public by portraying its Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos and Strawberry Smoothies as vegan-friendly. She recently received a picture of the ingredients in the frappuccinos and smoothies from a Starbucks barista that clearly showed the use of cochineal red dye made from the crushing of female cochineal beetles found in Mexico and South America. The extract gives the drinks their pinkish coloring. The photographs for the ingredients in the frappuccinos and smoothies can be found in Daelyn’s article here.  

I contacted Daelyn via email to inquire if she intended to petition for the removal of the extract due to her vegan lifestyle or if she had a real reason to be annoyed at Starbucks. Daelyn stated that the main reason for publishing the story was “to let [their] readers know that the drink, that was once reported as vegan, is no longer safe to consume.” Starbucks itself has now also vindicated her from many media claims, which directly or indirectly accused her of pushing her vegan agenda.

Daelyn has no problem with companies using the dye, and says, “If other companies wish to use the additive, that is completely up to them and not my place to ask them to stop using it -- as long as they aren't promoting the product as safe for vegans.” The writers at ThisDishIsVeg take issue with the lack of communication between the company and its clients.

While a few news outlets, including USA Today, reported judiciously on the topic, many in the media originally reported the story by accentuating the use of cochineal extract in the drinks in order to shock those who lacked knowledge of its prevalence in many food and drink items (myself included). For example, stories had titles such as “GROSS! Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccino contains 'dried bodies' of bugs.”

The use of the red dye is no big surprise, though. The cochineal extract has been used since at least the fifteenth century and is used in many American products, from Yoplait yogurts to three Kellogg's (K) Pop-Tarts flavors.  Others downplayed Daelyn’s complaint by emphasizing the health benefits of the cochineal extract compared to the negative health impacts of other artificial ingredients, implying vegans should just deal with it because the red dye is better for everyone. CBCNews, for example, opened with " Starbucks is listening to the consumer push for more natural foods. [...] The buggy inclusion has sparked criticism from some vegans and vegetarians, but a Canadian food scientist said that the extract borne of insects is still a better option than synthetic equivalents." The article only gives a small nod to vegans at the end of the article by stating, "As for vegans and vegetarians taking issue with 'hidden' animal extracts, Hekmat said that this could be resolved by producers being more open and transparent about their products." 

Here is what Starbucks did.

After Starbucks officially announced its new "However-You-Want-It Frappuccino," the company surreptitiously switched to the use of cochineal extract in January of this year. Vegans still assumed that the drinks were vegan-friendly because the company released no official announcement, and the ingredients are not listed on the drink's company profile. Daelyn said in her email, “I, personally, confirmed with Starbucks that the drinks were ‘free from animal-derived products,’” and she continued to assume the drink was vegan-friendly after the initial announcement last May. Last year, an employee at the coffee house chain even told ThisDishIsVeg to remind its readers that the whipped cream contained dairy to ensure vegan customers could follow their diet.

When Starbucks moved away from using artificial ingredients in January to make its drinks healthier, it abandoned its earlier meticulous method of PR. The company did nothing illegal, though, following FDA  regulations on the usage of cochineal extract. The company originally responded to Daelyn's article with this statement: “At Starbucks, we have the goal to minimize artificial ingredients in our products. The strawberry base for our Strawberries & Crème 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.”

Daelyn's response to Starbucks' change of heart? In an email to me, she said:

"I think it's fantastic that Starbucks plans to move away from artificial ingredients. However, there are other natural plant-based alternatives that can be used. Or, they can forgo the dye all together. And, I've never asked anyone to boycott the company. Again, my goal with the original article was to help people understand what they are consuming."

It looks like Starbucks agrees with her now.

ThisDishIsVeg just wants to hold Starbucks accountable for its original claim for its “However-You-Want-It Frappuccinos," specifically its initial claim of being  vegan-friendly, and and allow "customers to create a blended beverage that is uniquely their own."

You can view her petition on Change.org here.

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