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Bugs in My Food and FDA Approved

Dear Dr. Dave and Dr. Dee,

I do not have a bug phobia. But, after I was told that I was drinking bugs when I had a Starbucks smoothie, I can no longer bring myself to even have a smoothie. It just grosses me out. How can that be okay?



Dear Bugged,

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) allows crushed cochineal insects as a color additive in products such as food, cosmetics, and medicines as well as allowing a certain amount of general bug parts that are unavoidable in processed foods.


You do not have to worry about Starbucks smoothies any more. Prior to July 2012, Starbucks strawberry banana smoothie did have cochineal insect coloring to give it the pink color. However, because of public pressure from exposure in the news, Starbucks has since transitioned away from cochineal in their products to a tomato-based extract (Jaslow, R, "Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccinos dyed with crushed up cochineal bugs, report says,", March 27, 2012; Cliff Burrows, President Starbucks U.S., "Cochineal Extract Update,, April 19, 2012; Morefield, S., "Starbucks bows to public pressure, removes 'bug juice' from strawberry flavoring,, April 27, 2012).

Beginning in the 1500s, the cochineal red dye industry thrived in Spain for nearly 300 years, and became their second most profitable export after silver. However, Spain called the cochineal insects "seeds" or "grains," and it wasn't until the microscope was invented by the Dutch scientist, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, that cochineal were found to be bugs ("Cochineal—A Little Insect Goes a Long Way," U.C. Santa Barbara Geography News & Events Department News, January 29, 2011).

The use of crushed cochineal insects, originally to color fabric, later was used in makeup (lipstick, blush, eye shadow). Cochineal dyes fell out of favor when synthetic dyes were invented in the 1800s, but re-emerged in the last several decades as an alternative to red artificial dyes to color food, drugs, and cosmetics when synthetics were found to be carcinogenic. The color additive from the crushed cochineal bug is considered to be a safe and natural coloring by the FDA ("Cochineal—A Little Insect Goes a Long Way," U.C. Santa Barbara Geography News & Events Department News, January 29, 2011; "Cosmetics Carmine-Overview,", 2012).


Prior to 2011, cochineal insect coloring in food was simply listed under ingredients by the general term, 'color added.' However, because reports of severe allergic reactions to cochineal in food and cosmetics, and from a citizen petition submitted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the FDA now requires product labels to include the term cochineal or carmine on ingredient labels. Cochineal is also called carmine because dried cochineal contains 17-24% carminc acid (Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Adminstration, "Listing of Color Additives Exempt From Certification/ Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Labeling: Cochineal Extract and Carmine Declaration," 1-5-09; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "For Industry: Color Additives, " 6-3-11; "Cosmetics Carmine-Overview,", 2012). lists the following terms that the cochineal insect dye can be listed as ("Cosmetics Carmine-Overview,", 2012):

1. IN THE U.S.: Cochineal or Carmine

2. OUTSIDE THE U.S.: CI Natural Red #4, CI #75470, E120

You are not alone in being upset that crushed bugs are used to color food products. CSPI has requested that the FDA ban bug-based food dye, and suggested that if the FDA does not ban it, then have it clearly labelled "insect-based" for those who are allergic or on a vegan or kosher diet (Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Bug-Based Food Dye Should Be ... Exterminated, Says CSPI,", May 1, 2006).

CSPI also wants to ban artificial food coloring because of possible toxic effects, allergies, or other health concerns. Artificial food dyes are synthesized from petroleum, and some currently FDA approved artificial food dyes (i.e. Blue 1, 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 6) could cause cancer and have caused tumors in rat studies as well as hyperactivity in children (Kobylewski, S. &I Jacobson, M.F., "Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks," Center for Science in the Public Interest, June 2010).


Food coloring is added to food products in order to enhance colorless food or to enhance the color of natural foods. Foods that are red, orange, pink, or purple could have cochineal or carmine. Below are the types of products that could contain cochineal or carmine (Flinn, A., "Natural Colors - Carmine & Cochineal,", 2012; Salisbury, S., "What are crushed bugs doing as ingredients in food, makeup?", January 6, 2009):

Food Industry - Frozen fish, processed poultry products, fake crab, sausage, dehydrated soups, canned soups, caviar, ketchup, cereal.

Beverages - Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, liqueurs (i.e. Campari)

Dairy - Yogurt, ice cream, port wine cheese, and dairy based beverages

Confections - Candy, fillings, syrups, chewing gum

Fruit Preparations - Maraschino cherries, canned fruits such as cherries, jams


CSPI points out that many natural colorings are available to replace dyes such as juices from beets, carrots, blueberries, as well as beta-carotene, grape skin extract, paprika, purple sweet potato or corn, red cabbage, and turmeric. As CSPI director Michael F. Jacobson, states: "Here’s an idea for food companies: If you want to make your strawberry or cherry yogurt a brighter shade of red, why not just add more strawberries or cherries instead of resorting to insect juice?" (Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Bug-Based Food Dye Should Be ... Exterminated, Says CSPI,", May 1, 2006).


Besides the color additive from the cochineal insect, the FDA allows a certain amount of bugs or bug parts in products because it does not present a health hazard and "is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects" (U.S. FDA, "Defect Levels Handbook, The Food Defect Action Levels, Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans," 11/9/11). Examples of products and maximum levels of "defects" allowed before action is taken are below.


1. ALLSPICE, GROUND: average 30 or more insect fragments per 10 grams

2. BAY LEAVES: average 5% or more pieces by weight are insect-infested

3. BERRIES, CANNED and FROZEN: average 4 or more larvae or 10 or more whole insects per 500 grams

4. BROCCOLI, FROZEN: average 60 or more aphids/thrips/mites per 100 grams

5. CHOCOLATE AND CHOCOLATE LIQUOR: avearge 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams

6. CINNAMON, GROUND: average of 400 or more insect fragments or 11 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams

7. CITRUS FRUIT JUICES, CANNED: 5 or more Drosophila and other fly eggs or 1 mor more maggots per 250 ml

8. PEANUT BUTTER: average 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams

9. TOMATOES, CANNED: average 10 or more fly eggs per 500 grams

10. WHEAT FLOUR: average 75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams

While you can avoid natural (cochineal insect) or artificial red color additives by reading ingredient labels, or questioning establishments that serve foods that are red, pink, purple, or orange, it is nearly impossible to avoid insect parts in general from processed foods.

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