I try not to indulge in candy or gum too often, but when I do I’m pretty careful about checking the ingredients first. And before I try something new, I always turn it around to read the back of the label. 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.
Avoiding Hidden Ingredients
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.
Avoid natural colors and flavors
You probably already avoid foods that contain “artificial flavors and colors”, which is great. Keep doing that. But you may also want to start avoiding foods that contain “natural flavors and colors” as well.
What’s the difference? Natural colors and flavors are derived from plant or animal sources, whereas artificial colors and flavors are manufactured entirely in a lab.
The chemical makeup of the resulting colors and flavors may be identical, regardless of how they were produced. And both are considered “trade secrets”, which means that manufacturers are not required to list their actual ingredients. That’s a problem.
The ‘natural’ colors and flavors cost more, but brands pay the difference because “natural” sounds better than “artificial” to health-conscious consumers. Unfortunately, “natural flavors and colors” may still contain synthetic ingredients. They may also contain genetically modified crops, since the FDA does not regulate the word “natural”.
What to look for instead
You should be able to recognize the truly natural colors and flavors listed on the ingredients label. 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.
Other hidden ingredients 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 that doesn’t appeal to you, 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. 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.
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 foods 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.
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.
Good To Know
- When an ingredient lists just “natural flavors”, its full ingredients are hidden. But when the label says something like “natural flavor (peppermint)”, the manufacturer is telling you that they use the food ingredient “peppermint” as the (truly) natural flavoring.
- 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.