Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bugs in my Beverage? Absolutely!

Starbucks in the US (and possibly here) is changing some of their ingredients.

Their Strawberries and Cream Frappucinio, which is the absolutely coffee-free beverage shown on the right, has inspired a consumer backlash. Why's that? Well, that's because they're replacing the old synthetic red dye with extract of cochineal, a natural red dye that was the benchmark for the hue we now call Crimson.

This is excellent news, right? One less synthetic ingredient in mass-consumed food.

But Zac, you only ever use this space to complain!

Now now, that's not always true (though the exceptions tend to prove the rule). In this case, I'm actually in favour of the switch. What I'm here to complain about isn't swapping out Red Dye No. 42 (or whatever the old ingredient was) with natural cochineal. I'm also not here to complain about the spike I'm predicting in the costs of cochineal beetles to independent dye-makers like my very own Kat.

That's right, I said Cochineal Beetles, such as this little girls on the left. The Cochineal Beetle has been used for a very, very long time as a natural source of long-lasting red dye, which, along with blue, was always scarce in the time before synthetics, which is why red and blue are traditionally associated with royalty.

Why aren't I outraged about the use of bugs in food? Well, for one thing, outside of the narrow band of western culture, it's surprisingly common practice. I probably shouldn't tell you this, but grain products contain an "acceptable" level of insect material as well, and you probably swallowed a spider last night while you were sleeping. Sure, I have a little bit of a problem where the beetles look more like ticks, but as long as you aren't asking me to handle them, we'll be fine.

Truth is, there aren't a lot of places to get a natural red, and this is a good alternative to shipping in strawberries year-round and throwing nine-tenths of them out because they spoiled before you could make the frap. Is it gross? A little. Am I going to remember this factoid next time I order at Starbucks? Not likely.

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