Coffee, Bugs, and Death

Credit: Sheri Terris, via Flickr

People, why must you ruin my coffee-drinking life? When I indulge my fondness for the nectar of the burnt bean, I’m looking for a rich java experience, one brightened with a faint hint of bugs and a remote hope for the sweet surcease that only caffeinated death could bring. Must you take even this from me?

Buckling under pressure from the all-powerful vegan lobby, Starbucks has announced that it will soon stop preparing some of its drinks and foods with a red dye made from crushed insects. As the Associated Press reports:

The company says it will swap out cochineal extract, which is made from the juice of a tiny beetle, and instead use lycopene, a tomato-based extract.

Cochineal dye is widely used in foods and cosmetics products such as lipstick, yogurt and shampoo. Starbucks had used the coloring in its strawberry flavored mixed drinks and foods like the raspberry swirl cake and red velvet whoopie pie.


Let us first stipulate that I am already on the record as a man not unwilling to eat insects. Indeed, sometimes I can be enthusiastic about the prospect. (Why? Circle of life, my friends, the circle of life: the bugs will get their chance soon enough.)

But lycopene? Does no one see what putting a tomato extract into foods already laden with sugar, corn syrup, salt, and other ingredients will mean? It will mean that they are making ketchup! You can’t add ketchup to whoopee pies! It’s madness!

Furthermore, are people unaware of the noble history of the insect dye in question, as so gloriously explained by Amy Butler Greenfield in her book A Perfect Red (HarperCollins, 2005)? The cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus), which is native to cacti growing in Mexico and other parts of Central America, produces the dyestuff (also known as carminic acid) in its exoskeleton to repel predators

"Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail" by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777). (Credit: Newberry Library)

The Aztecs and Mayans discovered the dyestuff (also known as carmine) in crushed preparations of the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus) native to cacti growing in Mexico and other parts of Central America and used it to create fabrics more vividly colored than any seen before. (The carminic acid in the insect’s exoskeleton helps it to discourage predators.) In 1519 Spanish conquistadors brought it back to Europe and gave Spain a prized monopoly on the dyestuff for many years: after silver, cochineal became the most valued commodity imported from Mexico. Greenfield describes how the brilliance of what the chemist Robert Boyle hailed as “a perfect Scarlet” ignited a fierce industrial struggle among European powers:

Determined to break Spain’s lucrative monopoly, other nations turned to espionage and piracy. In England, the Netherlands, and France, the search for cochineal soon took on the tone of a national crusade. Kings, haberdashers, scientists, pirates, and spies all became caught up in the chase for the most desirable color on earth.

Meanwhile, as bright red fabrics and pigments became more widespread, European attitudes toward the color red changed. Red garments, which had once been available only to the wealthy, nobility, and high-ranking clergy, was embraced by the poorer classes—and that in turn led the contrary Victorian gentry to start wearing dark clothes and to dismiss red as vulgar, immoral extravagance.

By the 1880s, the invention of inexpensive artificial dyes such as alizarin had busted the market for cochineal, and the laborious raising and collection of cochineal insects on plantations around the world mostly ended. Today, Peru is the leading exporter of cochineal, primarily for food colorings and cosmetics in which all-natural ingredients are prized.

As Greenfield wrote in her book’s prologue:

The history of this mad race for cochineal is a window onto another world — a world in which red was rare and precious, a source of wealth and power for those who knew its secrets. To obtain it, men sacked ships, turned spy, and courted death.

Ladies and gentlemen, I beg of you, let us not spurn cochineal casually. It is a proud, magnificent tradition that we honor when we drink our heroic flagons of strawberry frappuccino.

• • •

Indeed, should we not cherish the death-defying act involved in drinking every cup of coffee? Years ago when I worked in a cell biology lab at Harvard Medical School, the other techs and I would sometimes eye the big plastic bottle of pure caffeine powder stored in one of the reagent freezers. (It was a hand-me-down from some long-forgotten set of experiments unrelated to anything we did.) We would idly speculate about what would happen if we were to take a big heaping teaspoon of the white powder and swallow it all in a gulp. How fast would our hearts explode?

And is there any grad student or journalist on deadline who hasn’t morbidly wondered whether his or her next cup of coffee might not be one too many, freeing us from all care forevermore? What simple joy such thoughts brought us.

But apparently the very witty David Ng cannot leave well enough alone: he has gone and calculated exactly how much coffee we would need to drink for its caffeine to kill us. Read all the details of his back-of-the-envelope calculations, because the problem turns out to be more complicated than one might think. Death by coffee means not only consuming enough to achieve a lethal concentration of caffeine in the tissues but also overcoming the rates of elimination of caffeine from the body.

Long story short, Dave makes a case that drinking enough coffee to kill yourself with caffeine (or with over-hydration, for that matter) borders on the impossible:

I haven’t had a chance to extrapolate this over the full year (365 days), but I’m pretty sure that even a constant coffee drinking regime (1 cup every 24 minutes for the full year) wouldn’t work out to a retention amount above the lethal dose.

All to say that your body pretty much kicks ass in its remarkable metabolism. Now, it’ll be interesting to maybe dig a little deeper with regards to how messed up a person gets with that base 2500mg inside them (as I’m sure the case will be). As well, not sure what the deal would be with 15 litres of expresso shots per day – that may just about be enough!

To which I can only say: Stop ruining away my fantasies, Dave Ng! You’re in no position to dismiss the deadliness of my habit because you have never tasted my coffee.

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4 Responses to Coffee, Bugs, and Death

  1. Alex says:

    Great piece. The amount of nuance and intrigue in items we seldom deign a conscious thought always blows my mind when I’m actually confronted by it.

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