You may have noticed Starbucks in the news a while back, announcing that they will no longer use the ingredient known as cochineal. Cochineal is a South American insect. The insect, and its eggs, are crushed and powdered to make carminic acid, or “carmine”. Carmine (which is known by other names, such as “cochineal extract”, “natural red #4″, “crimson lake”, “E120″, and sometimes, simply “natural coloring”) is used in a variety of products, including candy, cosmetics, gelatin, and pharmaceuticals. Up until recently, it was also used in a small number of Starbucks drinks and confections.
While objectionable to some, purely on the “ick” factor, carmine is also an issue for vegans, individuals with religious dietary restrictions, as well as people with certain allergies. Up until recently, it has been difficult to find a single brand of blueberry or strawberry yogurt that didn’t contain carmine. While some food makers have begun to offer alternatives, such as blueberry yogurt colored with beet juice, it still takes a degree of careful label reading if you wish to avoid this ubiquitous bug juice in various drinks and snacks.
Cochineal has also been used as a dye for clothing for many years, and was the favored dye of the Aztecs. You’ve surely heard that during the Revolutionary War, the British army were referred to as “redcoats”, but did you know that the aforementioned red in their coats was cochineal? Another fun fact is that cochineal is still used to dye the uniforms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (or “Mounties”, as they’re sometimes known).
As you can see, cochineal has been around for a long time, and doesn’t show any signs of going away anytime soon. With that in mind, the next time you pick up a strawberry yogurt, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to brag to your friends about what an adventurous eater you are!