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The Fascinating Story of How Those Tropical Insects Made It Into Your Starbucks Coffee

The Fascinating Story of How Those Tropical Insects Made It Into Your Starbucks Coffee
Wikipedia

You know the (false) old saw that in New York City, you're never more than 6 feet away from a rat? Well, in big cities it can kind of feel the same way with Starbucks establishments. Look at the galaxy of Starbucks around my office in downtown Washington, D.C.:

While the density of Seattle coffee slingers makes grabbing a hot one an easy task, it also means something else. We, as city residents, are surrounded by millions of bugs from Central and South America. And some of us eat them every day.

As you've probably heard by now, Starbucks uses a red dye derived from insects to color certain components of its beverages. If you've ever sipped a strawberries-and-cream Frappuccino or strawberry-banana smoothie, or eaten a red-velvet whoopie pie, raspberry-swirl cake or one of those tiny doughnuts with pink icing, then you've enjoyed the smooth taste of a cochineal bug, a scale insect that lives on tropical cacti. Starbucks is far from alone in dishing out the bug juice; the food industry also puts it in cherry-hued yogurts, juices. cheese, fake crab, maraschino cherries, candy and more. Carmine sometimes finds it way into lipstick and eyeliner, too.

The little crawlers, who belong to a suborder that includes aphids, mealybugs and jumping plant lice, contain reservoirs of carminic acid that make predators want to spit them out. Humans have been crushing up Dactylopius coccus to create carmine dye since at least the 15th century, when cities used carmine-colored blankets to pay tribute to conquerer Montezuma. Biologically speaking, the FDA-approved dye seems harmless enough, though a few people experience allergic reactions to it. (It's also not kosher.) Psychologically speaking it makes lots of coffee drinkers squirm, and for that reason Starbucks recently announced it was replacing it with a tomato-based coloring in the United States. Starbucks outposts in other countries might still use the bug formula.

It's a victory for vegans and a victory for the cochineals, for sure. But although the edible insects have been banished from Starbucks, folks who love a good entomological mystery might have lingering questions. Where did they come from, for instance? How did the lab transform them into an ingredient in our favorite drinks? I've tried to answer some of these queries below, using as many close-up glamour shots of bugs as possible, because I know that's what people really want to see.

This lump of exeskeleton may not look like much; however, it has a great personality. (And a killer set of vestigal legs!) These creatures vary in habitat from Europe to the Pacific Northwest, but really love to lounge unassumingly in hot places like Peru and Central America, where the Aztecs gathered them to make paint. The identity of a particular cochineal species is often hard to determine because they all look so similar. Female Dactylopius coccus are the ones commonly used to make carmine dye. (Photo from the University of California.)

Witness the beautiful life cycle of a Polish cochineal (Porphyrophora polonica) and its host plant, the knawel. Both are rather unassuming, which helps them avoid predation. The cochineal doesn't like to bring it, but if forced it will step up (meaning, be chewed thoroughly enough that it releases foul-tasting red liquids.) While bug flour may be the salvation for an overcrowded, resource-depleted world, these critters probably won't be factor into any waffles or baguettes. (Illustration from Johann Philip Breyn's 1731 Historia naturalis Cocci Radicum Tincttorii quod Polonicum vulgo audit.)

You'll no doubt recall this comparison of a cochineal dude and dudette from doctor Henry Hartshorne's 1881 Houshold Cyclopedia. Females are fat and sedentary, whereas males have peace signs coming out of their butts and die almost instantly after fertilizing their mates' eggs.

Photographer Frank Vincentz came across these Dactylopius coccus chatting it up on a plant in the Grand Canaries. They wouldn't give him the time of day, preferring to emit white, waxy strands of fibers instead. It helps protect the organisms against sun and rain.

Wiki user Zyance approached this gaggle of giggling bugs on an Opuntia cactus, their favorite gathering place. The matchhead-sized females also rebuffed him. The Canaries are full of stuck-up cochineal due to the area's history as a bug ranch. In 1868, locals exported 420 billion of the dye-making insects worldwide.

So Zyance tried out these ladies on a different bunch of cacti. No dice. The white fibers, in case you're curious, help young cochineals travel from cactus pad to cactus pad, like ziplines.

In the old days, bug hunters in the Americas would gather these crawling paint sacks by hand, sweeping them, at least in this picture, off of prickly-pear cacti with an old deer tail. Women of the Incans and Mayans used them to paint their hands and breasts. (Lady Gaga, are you listening?) They produced a much vivider shade of red than the middling bug the Europeans used, the kermes, and got Cortez very interested in the international cochineal trade. It was the second-most valuable import from Mexico to Spain by 1600. (Illustration by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez, a Mexican priest, scientist and journalist.)

Today, cochineals are still gathered by hand. But humans have evolved these neat Zapotec nests. (Photo by Oscar Carrizosa.)

The breakfast of champions: Dried female cochineals. Here's a hilarious historical footnote, as related by Jeff Behan at the Grand Canyon River Guides:

In addition to dye for fabric, cochineal became widely used as a food coloring. Cakes, cookies, beverages, jam, jelly, ice cream, sausages, pies, dried fish, yogurt, cider, maraschino cherries and tomato products were brightened with it as were chewing gum, pills and cough drops. Cosmetic rouge was developed with cochineal as the main ingredient. But while ever more diverse uses were found for cochineal, it’s origin remained a mystery.

Most Europeans thought it was extracted from berries or cereals because the dried insects looked like grains of wheat. This misconception was promoted by the Spanish, who had launched a brutal cover-up of the dye making process as soon as they realized cochineal’s potential. Many New World natives unfortunate enough to have chosen a career in red dye production were simply put to death.

(Image courtesy of Sprinky.)

Rick Bayless would approve of this hand-grinding method to pulverize the bugs, using a mano and metate. A blender is just a crutch for lazy cooks. (Travis S./Flickr)

Freshen your breath with a fertilized dried bug? Some people in Europe would use these biological husks as folk medicine to treat... god knows what. (Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany)

Not that you've boiled down your dried insects into carmine, you are ready to make some kick-ass tie-dyed shirts or a historical replica of a British army uniform. Seriously: The Red Coats used to march into battle wearing cochineal-bug threads, and the robes of Catholic cardinals were buggy, too. (Uglyagnes/Flickr)

I'D EAT THAT FOR A DOLLAR. Carmine, exposed to lime on the left and sodium bicarbonate on the right. Such treatments can make the colors last longer. (lorenzolambertino/Flickr)

Now that you have a gallon or so of liquified insect, there are a few things you can do. One, make a pretty textile out of it... (Travis S.)

Two, craft a hand-dyed, habotai silk cape for your kitty. (Slave2TehTink/Flickr)


Three, make a mouth-watering coffee drink like this Starbucks Venti Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino, from Douglas Whitaker. Just don't let it crawl away when you're not looking!

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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