I try not to indulge in candy or gum too often, but when I do I’m pretty careful about checking the ingredients first. I do that because I want to know what’s in it before I eat it. Pretty standard, I think.
The problem is that even some ‘healthier’ brands sometimes mask their less-desirable ingredients behind pleasant-sounding names. For example, pig tendons might be listed as ‘gelatin’. Or synthetic latex might be listed as ‘gum base’.
From a marketing perspective, it’s genius. From a consumer’s perspective, it’s upsetting.
It can also be kind of gross, if you don’t like the idea of eating candies, for example, that got their red coloring from squished beetles. And other times it’s downright dangerous, like when your child is highly allergic to those beetles.
Below are some hidden ingredients you will find listed on most popular treats and how to find their alternatives.
Artificial Colors and Flavors
Artificial colors and flavors are manufactured in a lab from synthetic ingredients… sometimes hundreds or thousands of chemical ingredients. Manufacturers aren’t even required to list what those (hidden) ingredients are, as they are considered a “trade secret”.
Natural colors and flavors are certainly a better alternative and are derived from plant or animal sources. For example, vibrant fruits, vegetables and botanicals such as blackberries purple carrots, vanilla or peppermint do a wonderful job of coloring and flavoring foods truly naturally.
However it’s worth noting that “natural” colors and flavoring may still include some synthetic or genetically modified ingredients, since the word “natural” is not regulated by the FDA. That said, ethical candy and gum makers that list “natural flavors” on their labels will usually describe where their natural flavors come from. Since there’s only so much room on the packaging, you often have to check their website.
Examples of natural alternatives
I have personally sampled every single one of the below candies (tough job – someone had to do it!) and feel obligated to share two important warnings: 1.) You may eat the entire package in a single sitting, and 2.) you will never again be able to eat the chemical-filled crap, because once you taste “real food” candies, you will forever taste the chemicals in the other stuff.
Other hidden ingredients you may want to avoid
Castoreum is a hidden ingredient that makes candy and other treats smell like vanilla, strawberries or raspberries. It comes from the dried castor sacs near the anus of beavers. If you just cringed by reading that (like I did!), choose alternatives that use pure vanilla extract or berry juice instead.
Confectioner’s glaze gives a shiny coating to jellybeans, candy corn, chocolates and even some vitamins. Yes, vitamins! This nice-sounding ingredient is actually a secretion from a scaly insect from Thailand. Look for beeswax on the label as an alternative, if you’re not vegan. Natural vegan alternatives to confectioner’s glaze can be difficult to find — most alternatives are synthetic or petroleum-based.
NOTE: You may see this ingredient listed by one of its alternate names such as shellac, natural glaze, candy glaze or food glaze. It’s all the same thing – “confectioner’s glaze”.
Carmine is a red dye used as the “natural coloring” of some hard candies. It comes from crushed beetles and has been known to cause severe allergic reactions. (This is the ingredient I was alluding to earlier.) Avoid “natural colors” in red candies and foods. Instead opt for red candies that use deeply pigmented plant-based colorings such as beets, purple carrots, elderberry, cranberries or pomegranates.
Gum base is a main ingredient in chewing gum that often comes from petroleum or synthetic latex rubber. Vegans should be aware that gum base may also contain lanolin (from sheep’s wool) or beeswax. Synthetic gum base is not biodegradable, which is a pretty good reason to avoid chewing it! For a healthier plant-based alternative, look for gum that lists chicle (a natural tree sap) as its gum base. And it’s worth mentioning, once you try natural gum, you’ll never go back. It tastes so much better than the synthetic crap.
Gelatin gives marshmallows, gummy candies, Jello and jelly beans their thick, chewy texture. Gelatin is extracted from the skin, bones and tendons of cows and pigs. That can be disturbing for some, but for vegans it’s an outright no-can-do. Carrageenan is a plant-based thickener that is sometimes marketed as an alternative to gelatin. But studies show that carrageenan may be harmful to your health, so it not the alternative of choice. Instead, look for chewy treats that use pectin or agar agar as their thickener.
If you can’t tell what’s in it, don’t buy it
Overall, look for foods and sweets made from real food ingredients that are fully listed on the label.
Companies who are thoughtful about their products have no reason to hide their ingredients behind alternate names or trade secrets. These more conscious and transparent brands make it easy for you to know exactly what you’re buying.
Good to Know
- You can feel safe that candy is free from animal ingredients if it is labeled as “vegan” or displays the leaping bunny seal.
- Chicle is a sap that comes from the sapodilla tree, native to Central America. Chicle was originally used as the (natural) base for all chewing gum, until synthetic rubber and petroleum gum bases were developed.