The Amazing Story of Starbucks' Insect Dye

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Didn't know Starbucks used bug juice in your drink? Fear not -- they're giving up the practice, anyway.

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Flickr/tsuh

Good news for Starbucks fans who wouldn't hurt a fly: In the future, no insects will be harmed (except of course indirectly those poisoned by farmers) in making Frappucinos and Smoothies.

Starbucks (SBUX, Fortune 500) President Cliff Burrows wrote, in a Thursday blog, that Starbucks is "transitioning" away from the use of an insect called the cochineal.

Burrows blogged that Starbucks "fell short of your expectations by using natural cochineal extract as a colorant in four food and two beverage offerings in the United States."

He identified the products in question as the Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino, Strawberry Banana Smoothie, Raspberry Swirl Cake, Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing and Red Velvet Whoopie Pie.

Cochineal insects are indeed "natural." But their story is also one of the world's most colorful food tales. Starbucks customers upset by knowing what has been in their drinks can take heart at sharing the red dye with pre-Columbian royalty:

[C]ochineal red can be found in the textiles throughout the north and south coast, and with few exceptions, nearly all of the examples we studied after around 400 A.D. had been dyed with cochineal. The Inca used cochineal to achieve their 'blood' red color, sometimes mixed with a yellow dye, used in a number of official royal Inca garments. Red for the Inca was notably a symbol of kingship, the mascaypaycha -- the red fringe worn at the forehead of the king's.

Diane Ackerman, in her review of Amy Butler Greenfield's A Perfect Red, sums up the appeal of European as well as New World elites, and later of global mass consumers, with the colorful insects thus:

Why the royal obsession with red? Red lassos the eye. When a man sees bright red (a battle uniform, say, or a red dress), he pays real attention, and his adrenal gland secretes more adrenaline to tune his body for trouble. No one can stay calm long in an eye-jolting red room. Red flames and poisonous red frogs both signal danger. Sometimes red tells tales of pleasure. In the animal world, red often indicates ripe fruit or ripe females. Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup, and many other companies flash red in their packaging to entice customers. At heart, we're fragile sacks of red fluid. Spill a little in a timely way, through menstruation, and women can produce life; spill too much and we die.

Cultivation of the prickly pear cactus as a host for cochineal insects spread throughout the Mediterranean in the early modern period, and the plant became the proud emblem of native-born Israelis, using the Arabic name for an originally Mexican plant: Sabras.

Anyway, there's consolation for non-vegans who want their cochineal bug fix: they can still get it in popular grapefruit juice and drinks.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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