Bug extract in Starbucks touted as healthy alternative

The strawberries and cream Frappaccino at Starbucks contains an extract that comes from insects - something one expert thinks is actually better for coffee drinkers than synthetic additives.
The strawberries-and-cream Frappuccino at Starbucks contains an extract from cochineal, which is used to give the beverage a reddish tinge. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Starbucks is listening to the consumer push for more natural foods.

By using an extract made from the ground-up bodies of insects.

This fact has gone viral after a vegan barista who works for Starbucks in the U.S. sent a picture of the ingredient list for their strawberries-and-cream Frappuccino to a vegetarian blog earlier this month.

The sauce contains an extract from cochineal, an insect indigenous to Latin America, and is used to give the beverage a reddish tinge.

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.

"Even if the colour is a little bit off, I still think people want to go with something that is free of additives and chemicals," said Sharareh Hekmat, an associate professor in the faculty of food and nutritional sciences at Brescia University College in London, Ont.

Starbucks started using cochineal extract in the strawberry base for its Frappaccino a couple of years ago. Spokesman Jim Olson told the Seattle Times that it is "a common natural dye that is used in the food industry, and it helps us move away from artificial ingredients."

The majority of additives found in food items at restaurants and grocery stores are not natural.

Consider silicon dioxide – found in pre-grated cheese, but also in cement and paint (albeit in much larger amounts).

"You add these chemicals to get certain functions from them. If they're adding silicon, it's because they don't want the pieces to stick to each other," Hekmat said.

"If you want to go for convenience, sometimes that's the price you have to pay. If you want the pre-grated cheese, it's going to have those chemicals in them."

Though natural extracts like cochineal may be less damaging than its purely synthetic cousin, some food advocates still find it distasteful.

Consider castoreum, a natural extract that TV chef Jamie Oliver has famously campaigned against.

Castoreum is used as a food additive in various applications, especially in vanilla and raspberry flavours. It's prepared through the direct hot-alcohol extraction of dried and crushed beaver glands.

"It comes from rendered beaver anal gland," Oliver exclaimed to David Letterman on The Late Show last year.

"It’s in cheap strawberry syrups and vanilla ice cream. If you like that stuff, next time you put it in your mouth, just think of anal gland," he said.

Then there’s titanium dioxide, sometimes used to dye skim milk a white colour. It can also be found in white paint, and has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible carcinogen for humans.

The white colour in milk actually comes from its fat content. When it's removed, milk can appear discoloured.

"That fat gives the illusion of a white colour," Hekmat said. "When you take the fat out, the pigments in milk have a blue or greenish tint to them."

But, she said, you probably wouldn’t even notice that bluish hue unless you're paying obsessively careful attention to your milk.

"The trend is going towards adding less additives," she said. "People want more natural foods."

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.

Sarah Elton, author of the Canadian agricultural book Locavore and food columnist for CBC Toronto, said the best way for vegans and vegetarians to make sure they're not eating animal byproducts is to stay away from processed foods.

"It can be difficult to make sense of labels," she said. "Choosing foods that aren't processed is the best way to go because there's probably all sorts of things in your food that you don't want to eat."

"As a mother, I'd much rather my kids be eating bugs than chemical dyes."