Thursday, February 20, 2014

Starbucks: Insect-Based Color Additive (2012)

Starbucks Coffee Corp. logo

Starbucks has come to be known as a well-established chain of coffee shops whose humble beginning was a sole coffee shop in Seattle in 1971. Since then it has flourished and currently prides itself on holding a high standard of quality for its products while delivering its services to over 19,000 retail stores in more than 60 different countries world-wide. Aside from its coffee, Starbucks is also well known for its other products including pastries and Frappuccinos. Recently Starbucks has come under fire when it was widely publicized that the company had been using cochineal insects as a natural scarlet dye for its Strawberry and Crème Frappuccinos. In March of 2012 CBS News shared the information after it had been exposed by one of Starbucks’ employees as a warning to consumers.
The process of making the insect-based dye involves harvesting the cochineal insects from cacti, killing them in a manner that preserves their natural color, drying the bodies, and then pulverizing them to create a vibrant red powder for mixing into products. Although this practice may seem barbaric and grotesque, it is important to point out that Starbucks is not the first to make use of cochineal (Also referred to as Carmine). It has had a presence throughout history after early South American civilizations discovered the insects’ properties centuries ago. It was (and still is) used as a dye for paintings, fabrics, and evidently foods. Over time cochineal has seen fluctuations in the market as more alternatives were introduced and harvest yields change, but it has a strong presence in the market today and may be found on the ingredients list of some of your favorite red-colored food products, including those from major food companies.
Regarding Starbucks’ decision to use cochineal in its products, the issue will be discussed further from an ethical perspective and analyzed using four key theories in business ethics. Those theories are Individualism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue Theory.

Cochineal bugs, used to color Starbucks
 "Strawberry&Creme Frappuccinos"

The theory of Individualism suggests that the only purpose of business is to maximize profits and doing so by any means within the law. In terms of legality, cochineal is a substance that is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration therefore selling it for the purpose of consumption is ethically justifiable in accordance with Individualism. The reason for adding the dye to a product is to make that product more appealing to the consumer, so in that regard it also makes sense for a company such as Starbucks to use cochineal as an aid for drawing in more business. This being said there are still several alternatives to using cochineal therefore one would need to question the benefits along with the drawbacks associated with the product. In an attempt to set itself apart from competitors Starbucks chose to move away from using cheaper artificial dyes, and in terms of natural dyes, there was not a significant benefit in cost or effectiveness that can be found in many other products. According to Food Navigator, a website dedicated to news on food and beverages, the cost of cochineal in 2012 was reportedly $15 per kilogram and it is recognized as one of the most effective natural dyes. Taking these things into consideration it is arguable whether Starbucks’ initial decision can be deemed ethical because it may have been profitable if had gone unnoticed, but it was a clear mistake when looked back on. In terms of cost and performance cochineal is an ideal additive, but there is an obvious reputation that comes with it that could pose a threat to sales. The use of cochineal in Starbucks Frappuccinos was short lived as the company chose to change gears within a short couple of months following public criticism and petitions.

The next ethical theory that will be used to analyze the case is Utilitarianism. According to the theory the subject must act in such a manner and make decisions that will maximize happiness for the greatest group of people possible. In the short term Starbucks did a tremendous job of promoting its products after replacing the dairy in their Frappuccino mix with soy and was hailed for offering products that could be consumed by vegans. This period of happiness was short-lived when their secret went public and consumers learned there were insects being added to their Strawberry and Crème Frappuccinos as an effort to abandon artificial additives. Vegans were outraged because consuming the once living organisms is against their beliefs while others were simply disgusted that they had been unknowingly ingesting the insect-based additive. Starbucks’ business choice brought more sorrow than happiness and will surely be the subject of criticism for years to come. This said it can be recognized that using the additive does not follow the theory of Utilitarianism as far more individuals look down upon the company’s decision rather than applaud it for foregoing artificial dyes.

Kevin Johnson, Starbucks Corp. CEO

The third ethical theory being used to assess the case is Kantianism. The basic principle of Kantianism is to make rational decisions that are solely motivated by good will while treating others as equals and allowing them to make their own informed decisions. Ideally following this belief brings honesty to business and thus leads to prosperity. Starbucks is certainly in violation of this ethical theory because it did not make the newly adopted additive explicit to its customers. Many consumers would turn down any food product that they recognize as containing insects, and withholding the information while knowing this is deceitful which is strongly against Kantian beliefs. In addition to this if one were to visit the company’s site, the menu is listed there but the corresponding ingredients are nowhere to be found. This leaves one to question further as to what is being used in their current products. These things considered it can be seen that Starbucks’ decision to use cochineal was not motivated by good will but rather a ploy for additional revenue. It chose an ingredient it can market as being natural but was an ingredient that most would preferably do without.

Virtue Theory
"Strawberries&Creme Frappuccino"
from Starbucks
The Final ethical theory that will be used for analysis is Virtue Theory. Virtue Theory is a character based theory that looks at virtues such as courage, honesty, temperance, and justice. Although it may not have paid off, Starbucks definitely demonstrated courage in trying to use the natural dye in its Frappuccino. It may be seen as gross by many, but the reality is cochineal is a much safer product (apart from being an allergen) than other artificial options that are reportedly linked to cancer. In terms of honesty, there was some deceit as previously mentioned but credit can be given to Starbucks for not denying the allegations. The company also demonstrated temperance when it recognized consumers were not for cochineal. Within months the company managed to maintain its natural ingredient initiative and replaced cochineal with a tomato extract. This corrective action also coincides with justice in that the company worked towards a solution that would satisfy its customers.

Overall the exposure of cochineal served as a shock to many consumers but the reality is the product has been commonly used to enhance the color in products for centuries. Although it may never be openly welcomed by consumers, it is important to point out that it is a natural additive that is approved by the FDA and arguably a safer choice than artificial alternatives such as petroleum-based Red Dye #40. Taking this into account, one can analyze Starbucks’ decision to secretly use the dye and make a sound ethics based judgment.


Mestel, Rosie. "Cochineal and Starbucks: Actually, this dye is everywhere." Los Angeles Times. N.p., 20 Apr 2012. Web. 20 Feb 2014. <>.

Jaslow, Ryan. "Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccinos dyed with crushed up cochineal bugs, report says." CBSNEWS. CBS Interactive Inc. , 27 Mar 2012. Web. 20 Feb 2014. <>.

Bahsin, Kim. " Here's What You Need To Know About The Ground-Up Insects Starbucks Puts In Your Frappuccino ." Business Insider. N.p., 29 Marchl 2012. Web. 20 Feb 2014. <>.

Watson, Elaine. "An alternative to crushed bugs? Chr. Hansen explores producing carmine via controlled fermentation process ." FOODnavigator-usa. N.p., 11 Sep 2013. Web. 20 Feb 2014. <>.

Witrak, Christopher. "Starbucks Admits Its Mistake in Hiding Use of Cochineal Beetle Extract ." Minyanville. N.p., 30 Mar 2012. Web. 20 Feb 2014. <>.

Salazar, Heather. "Kantian Business Ethics." 20 Feb. 2014.


  1. My daughter really likes that drink. That makes me one "Angrywhoppr"!

  2. Its amazing how they can keep that information and not tell customers