By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director
In March 2012, The Seattle Times reported that a vegan Starbucks employee sent a photo of the container of the "Strawberry with other natural flavours " sauce to the website http://www.thisdishisvegetarian.com. The employee stated that the sauce was used in the Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino® and the Strawberry Smoothie® served at Starbucks Café. The sauce, in a package that changed "three or four weeks ago" according to the source, contained cochineal extract, derived from beetle exoskeletons.
The VRG confirmed with Starbucks in April 2012 that the animal-derived natural red coloring is present in five of its menu items: Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino®, Strawberry Smoothie®, Birthday Cake Pops®, Birthday Cake Mini-Doughnuts®, and Red Velvet Whoopee Pies®.
Starbucks customer service representatives told The VRG that the company’s efforts to minimize artificial ingredients in its products lead to the use of natural cochineal extract in several beverages and desserts. Cliff Burrows, Starbucks’ US president, in a posting on the March 29, 2012 Starbucks blog, stated that the company "fell short" of consumer expectations, is reviewing natural alternatives to cochineal for its products, and is looking at reformulations: http://blogs.starbucks.com/blogs/customer/archive/2012/03/29/update-regarding-cochineal-extract.aspx
The VRG asked Starbucks if cochineal is listed on store menus, its menu board, or on its website so that concerned consumers could be informed before they ordered cochineal-containing menu items. We received an email from the company stating that "it is not listed. " The company reiterated that cochineal is "…an FDA-approved natural food coloring…This information is open to the public. "
It is true that cochineal is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food colorant and that cochineal is exempt from labeling requirements in restaurants and similar places, (provided there is no health or nutrition claim being made about the food or beverage containing it), although nutrition and ingredient information should be available if a patron requests it: http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/foodlabelingnutrition/ucm053455.htm.
In 2009, the FDA required, due in part to a 1998 petition by Center for Science in the Public Interest, (CSPI), that cochineal extract and carmine, (also derived from beetle exoskeletons), must be labeled on packaged foods and cosmetics. This ruling took effect in January 2011. FDA stated that in "a small subset " of cases, these colorants can cause severe allergic reactions and warrant explicit declaration (not simply generic "artificial color " or "color added " statements) in all cases where they occur in foods and cosmetics. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2009-01-05/html/E8-31253.htm
However, FDA did not rule in this manner on the basis of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) because cochineal and carmine are not "major food allergens. " http://www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/foodallergenslabeling/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/ucm106890.htm#q26
Nor did FDA find that the insect origin of these colorants is necessary information for someone who may be allergic to them and, so, FDA does not require the insect origin to be declared in any case.
For those who may be allergic to cochineal or carmine and find themselves in a restaurant or carry out setting where prepared foods may be ordered, they must inquire about specific ingredients in menu items before ordering in order to know if they are present. Concerned consumers must be cognizant that any pink or red beverage or food could contain cochineal or carmine and be ready to ask questions.
The contents of this article, our website, and our other publications, including the Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company employees or company statements.Information does change and mistakes are always possible. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. Further research or confirmation may be warranted.
For more information on sources of food ingredients and to purchase our Guide to Food Ingredients, visit the VRG at http://www.vrg.org/ingredients/index.php
For information on fast food and quick service chains, food ingredients, and for other information of interest to vegetarians and vegans, please subscribe to our enewsletter at http://www.vrg.org/vrgnews/
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