If You Eat These Popular Candies, You're Also Eating Insect Secretions

Here’s a fun fact that might help you cut down on all those sugary sweets you like to eat: most of the confectioner’s glaze that makes candy look so good is made from dead insect secretions. Bet that just killed your appetite. 

Approximately, 100,000 of the suckers are used to produce a pound of shellac flakes. What are those? Good question. Shellac flakes are made from “a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand,” which once processed and sold as dry flakes, get dissolved in alcohol to make liquid shellac — the substance “used as a brush-on colorant, food glaze and wood finish.” That’s right, the stuff that makes your Jolly Rancher jelly beans all nice and shiny, may come from the same source as the polish on your furniture. 

Before we get to whether this a “good” or “bad” practice, let’s first take a closer look at what exactly goes into making shellac. 

A fine place to start is this article on Scientific American. Along with giving sweets their sheen, the article’s author explains, shellac also preserves “shelf life for 12 months” and keeps “candies clear of moisture and oxygen to so their fats don’t break down, which leads to the development of off-flavors.” 

The author goes on to explain in greater detail how the resin is extracted from the “tiny-scale insects” used to make shellac. The insects suck tree sap and secrete a “resinous pigment known as lac” which helps them cling to tree branches. These branches are later harvested, often with most of the bugs still attached, crushed, then washed and sieved to produce shellac, or for the Tim Burton fans out there, colloquially known as “Beetlejuice.” 

Shellac is also not the only sweet ingredient that uses crushed bugs. Carmine, a “natural” coloring agent is made by boiling cochineal beetles. Like Shellac, Carmine helps give sweets a certain deep lustre. For this process, the beetles are directly harvested from cacti, placed into bags, which are then taken to production plants where they are either boiled in water or left to dry out in sunlight or in an oven. Generally, around 70,000 of the boiled beetles are used to make around a pound of Carmine. 

More specifically, Carmine derives its shine from fertilized coccineal eggs. The dried and harvested eggs contain the actual carmine substance, which is extracted through a filtration process. Whenever your food contains descriptions in the ingredients list like “natural color“, “added color“, or “artificial color” there's a strong chance it contains carmine. Some popular options you have likely come across include:

  • Hershey’s Good n’ Plenty
  • Hershey’s Good n’ Fruity
  • Hot Tamales
  • Jelly Belly jellybeans
  • Lemonheads
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Mike & Ike
  • Non-pareils and sprinkles
  • Red Hots
  • Sugar Babies
  • Tropicana grapefruit juice
  • Willy Wonka Gobstoppers
  • Willy Wonka Runts
  • Willy Wonka Nerds
  • Yoplait strawberry yogurt

PETA have launched their own campaign calling for “candy companies to de-bug their sweets.” According to the animal rights activist group, the flakes can be replaced for “vegan ingredients after hearing from customers.” PETA cited a number of brands from Starbucks, who replaced a dye used in their Frappuccino recipe, to a number of other sweets (Nerds, Gobstobbers, Skittles and Tic Tacs) that switched to non-animal ingredients.

But should we really be turning our noses up at bugs, or rather embrace the edible—and nutritious—critters?

This was in fact the topic of a recent Guardian article. According to new research, the article explained, “insects and imitation meat are the best alternatives to real meat in tackling the huge and growing environmental impact of livestock on the planet.” How exactly? The research showed that if we were to replace the meat in our diets with insects, we’d be able to reduce the amount of land required to produce the world’s food “by a third.”

“The developing world is eating more meat as they can afford to do so. That really is a concerning trend if it continues,” Peter Alexander, a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who conducted the research, explained to the Guardian. “If everybody eats meat like an American does currently, then it’s going to be very difficult to sustain. With current production practices, more than the entire area of the planet would be required.”

With that in mind, should we really be up in arms about bugs in our sweets? As the Guardian points out, over 2,000 species of insects already form part of people’s diets in over 119 countries worldwide. We certainly don't need insects to produce candy, but in anything, the West needs to be playing a bit of catch-up and embrace alternative sources of protein. If not, we may not even be around to enjoy sweets in the future.

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