Starbucks has the vegan community seeing red over what it recently began using to color its Strawberry Frappuccinos: beetles.
That's beetles as in ground up cochineal beetles -- mostly found in Mexico and South America.
Gross as that may sound, it's a common, government-approved food coloring used widely throughout the food industry. It's in everything from some Yoplait yogurts to three Kellogg's Pop-Tarts flavors.
A Vegan website, ThisDishIsVeg.com, this month warned its readers that Strawberry Frappuccino was no longer vegan and now is using the beetles for coloring. Starbucks made the switch in January when it aggressively moved away from artificial ingredients.
For Starbucks, which is eager to get artificial ingredients out of its food and drinks, it's an unexpected PR problem. Never mind that Frappuccinos, in total, represent a $2 billion global business for Starbucks. "This is the quintessential modern day PR crisis," says PR expert Katie Delahaye Paine. "You try to be good and green, and someone is going to get you for it."
Daelyn Fortney, co-founder of the vegan website ThisDishIsVeg.com, was informed of the change by an anonymous Starbucks barista. She wants Starbucks to go back to using a vegan coloring like red beet, black carrots or purple sweet potatoes. She's posted a petition from her group on the website Change.org, under the heading, "Starbucks: Stop using bugs to color your strawberry colored drinks." Late Wednesday, it had 779 signatures.
"This was known as a drink that vegans can safely consume," she says. "We're not trying to cause any problems. Our point is, vegans are drinking this and it's not vegan."
But Starbucks says it's simply trying to do the right thing. "At Starbucks, we have the goal to minimize artificial ingredients in our products," spokeswoman Lisa Passe says.
Nutrition experts say it's the right idea, but the wrong execution. "Starbucks should be praised for getting rid of artificial ingredients," says Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But since some folks have allergic reactions to insects, he says, "Strawberry Frapuccinno should be colored with strawberries."
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, says she's not concerned. "This is pretty far down on my list of outrageous food issues."
By Bruce Horovitz