Dannon Urged to Use Berries, Not Insect-Derived Carmine, to Color its Yogurts

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants global yogurt giant Dannon to put berries over bugs. Dannon uses carmine—a dye extracted from the dried, pulverized bodies of cochineal insects—to give several varieties of fruit-flavored yogurt their pink color. The nonprofit food watchdog group says that Dannon's practice cheats consumers, who might expect that the named fruits—and not the unnamed creepy crawlies—are providing the color. And, the bug-based dye puts some consumers at risk of serious allergic reactions.

Strawberry, Cherry, Boysenberry, and Raspberry varieties of Dannon's "Fruit on the Bottom" line all contain the critter-based dye, as does the Strawberry flavor of Dannon's Oikos brand of Greek yogurt. Two flavors of Dannon's Light and Fit Greed use the extract, as do six of its Activia yogurts. Dannon uses other natural colorings, such as purple carrot juice, in its Danimals line of yogurts marketed to children. CSPI's Chemical Cuisine guide to food additives says "certain people should avoid" carmine since a small percentage of consumers can have reactions ranging from hives to anaphylactic shock after eating it.

"I have nothing against people who eat insects, but when I buy strawberry yogurt I'm expecting yogurt and strawberries, and not red dye made from bugs," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Given the fact that it causes allergic reactions in some people, and that it's easy to use safer, plant-based colors, why would Dannon use it at all? Why risk offending vegetarians and grossing out your other customers?"

CSPI is sponsoring an online petition on TakePart.com urging Franck Riboud, CEO of Dannon's parent company Groupe Danone, to replace the bug-based dye with more of the fruit advertised on the label.

The cochineal insect is a tiny, parasitic scale insect native to South America and Mexico. It lives on and feeds off a certain type of cacti. The red color comes from carminic acid, which the insects have in abundance. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, it takes on the order of 40,000 of the little bugs to produce one pound of cochineal extract. Besides yogurts, carmine can be found in candies, ice creams, and beverages, as well as in drugs and cosmetics.

In response to a CSPI petition, the Food and Drug Administration at least requires carmine to be listed on food labels when it is used. Previously, companies could obscure the presence of the insect extract by labeling it "artificial color." CSPI had urged the FDA to go further and describe carmine as "insect-derived," making it easier for vegetarians, Jews who keep Kosher, or anyone otherwise averse to eating such ingredients to avoid it.