In 2012, after backlash from anxious customers, Starbucks announced that it would stop using bugs to colour some of its products. The bug in question? The cochineal bug, which has been at the centre of a decades-old controversy on food labelling, health regulations and the health risks associated with food additives.
The female cochineal bug, pictured below, is crushed and mashed up to extract a red colour that is added to some of our favourite foods.
Cochineal extract can cause severe allergic reactions. It’s also problematic for both vegans and vegetarians as well as those with cultural dietary restrictions. Not knowing that there is bug extract in your food makes it difficult to trust food labelling in Canada.
A general rule of thumb is that if it’s processed and red, it probably contains cochineal extract – think of red popsicles, Fruitopia and red candy. You can verify that your food has cochineal extract by looking for the ingredients “red 4,” or “natural food colouring,” (although the latter hints at an array of possible food colour additives ranging from yellow to blue dyes).
In 2010, Health Canada proposed a review of food labelling that would clarify the ingredients that consumers were ingesting. Currently, in Canada, added food colourants do not have to be specified – they can be collectively listed under “colours” if they were derived from a “natural” source. In America, however, foods with cochineal must identify this by specifically listing “cochineal” or “carmine” on their food labels.
Red 2 and Red 40:
In 1976, the U.S and many other countries banned an artificial food colourant called amaranth (Red No. 2) after studies linked the dye to cancer. After this ban, Mars stopped making red M&M’s and replaced them with orange M&M’s. Although the red M&M’s never contained amaranth, producers wanted to alleviate consumer fear about M&Ms in general. It was only in the mid 80’s that red M&M’s began popping up again. In Canada and the European Union, amaranth is still a legal food colourant.
Red No. 40, also known as Allura Red, is an artificial dye that replaced the banned amaranth-based dye in the United States. Derived from petroleum, this artificial food dye has also made people anxious about its side effects. Allura Red has been associated with adverse health effects, such as hyperactivity in children and cancer. Although there is no definite consensus on the toxicity of Allura Red, some studies have linked it with immune system tumours in mice as well as decreased reproductive success. In 2010, the European Union made it obligatory for food labels to warn that the food product “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Although the EU hasn’t banned Red 40, it has limited its use. European countries use natural alternatives or no colouring at all in the same products in Canada that contain red 40. While a red M&M in Canada has red 40, a red M&M in England has only natural colouring.
After its 2012 announcement, Starbucks turned to tomatoes for red food colouring. Tomatoes contain a pigment, called lycopene, that gives them their characteristic red colour. This alternative introduces the possibility of obtaining food colouring from plants, something that is far less controversial. Another alternative that scientists are interested in is the potato. We can produce many different colours from the purple sweet potato. One of the major problems with this alternative of food colouring production, however, is that it is highly inefficient.
What does all this mean?
It is so important for consumers to be completely aware of what they are putting into their bodies. Food labelling can be somewhat ambiguous. This ambiguity should open up conversations with others, to foster a culture of awareness around food products and how food is made. Reading food labels and researching strangely coded ingredients can help us make more informed decisions about the food products we introduce into our homes and our bodies.