Cost of Living

Pig skin, dead wasps and bee vomit: what's really in that candy?

Insect and animal byproducts make up many common candy ingredients, such as natural red dye, confectioner’s glaze, gelatin and even honey.

Animal and insect byproducts make up many of the common ingredients in the confectionery industry

Some of these candies could contain a spooky surprise: Bugs. (CBC)
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Popular Halloween candies like jellybeans, gummy bears and candy corn all have a surprising commonality that could scare you this trick-or-treating season, and it has nothing to do with ghosts or monsters.

These sweets, among others, often contain animal or insect byproducts through ingredients such as gelatin, confectioner's glaze or the food colouring E120.

The makeup of these common ingredients, found on the backs of candy packages, might come as a shock to many consumers.

Gelatin comes from animal skin and bone

A very common ingredient in gummies and jellies is gelatin. It's extracted from the collagen in animal skin and bone, and gives gummy bears a delightfully bouncy texture.

Many of the most common candy products found in Canadian stores contain gelatin derived from pork, which makes them off limits to those who follow a kosher or halal diet, as both the Jewish and Islamic faiths forbid the consumption of pork.

This candy, hanging in a Calgary store, is all certified as halal — because it does not contain gelatin made from pigs. (Falice Chin/CBC)

However the market is adapting to the growing demand for gelling agents made from alternatives to pork, such as beef or fish gelatin. Halal or kosher alternatives are now available for popular gummy candies or treats such as marshmallows.

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The halal market in Canada, which includes both retail and trade, is estimated to be worth around $2 billion a year, according to the World Halal Forum.

Shellac comes from lac bug

Another common ingredient in confectionery such as hard candies is shellac, also known as "confectioner's glaze."

It's the same shellac that gives furniture and nail polish that nice, shiny finish. And we have the lac bug to thank for this versatile material used to coat everything from pills to jellybeans.  

Natural shellac is shown on the branch of a longan tree in northern Thailand. (Shutterstock)

"It's a scale insect that grows on some trees in India and Southeast Asia —Thailand and other places like that," said Claudio La Rocca, entomologist-turned-food entrepreneur who runs a cricket farm near Edmonton.

"Basically what happens is people scrape the insect resin from these trees and process down and make this substance that applies to items, making them shiny and hard," he said. 

Claudio La Rocca is an entomologist and the co-founder of Camola Foods, a cricket farm near Edmonton, Alta. (Gaetan Lamarre/CBC)

Although some candy manufacturers have switched over to using vegetable and fruit coating, lac production remains big business in Southeast Asia.

India alone produces more than 16,000 tonnes of raw lac every year, according to researchers with the Indian Institute of Natural Resins and Gums.

'Natural red dye' comes from insects — naturally

A less common ingredient used in candy is the colour E120, also known as "natural red dye" or carmine.

It's an insect-derived deep red colour that was once worth more than gold.

A man crushes a cochineal insect to show its red colour at a greenhouse in Mexico. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

"Cochineal is the name of the insect," La Rocca explained. "Same story as the lac bug, it's a scale insect from the same family."

The cochineal lives on cacti in parts of Central and South America. It produces an acid to deter predators that is so vividly red, both the Mayan and Aztec populations used it as a dye centuries before the Spanish conquest.

Cochineal insects are seen on a nopal cactus leaf in Mexico. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

"Historically in Europe, most of the red dying was done using sea shells and other products but it was very hard to obtain a red colour that would stick around," said La Rocca.

"But this colour from cochineal doesn't wash away quickly. Only the very rich people could afford very good red clothes. The pope used a red coat, for example. It's all a bit of a stereotype but the way we represent a king is the red cape." 

The cost of cochineal extract has gone down substantially in the modern era, making it easier for companies from Starbucks to Ferrero to use it in their food products. Wonka Nerds, for example, lists "carmine colour" on its nutrition label.

Some industry insiders, however, have said the global carmine market could grow from $33.9 million to $57.5 million US by 2025, as it becomes more widely used in place of artificial food additives consumers express health concerns over.

Fig Newtons are full of wasps

Any candy or treat that includes figs is essentially laced with wasps, according to Daniella Martin.

It's a surprising fact that delights the entomophagist and author of Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet. Entomophagy is a term to describe eating insects.

Entomophagy advocate Daniella Martin thinks eating bugs is fabulous. (Submitted by Daniella Martin)

"Every fig essentially has a female wasp inside of it that the fig itself has eaten," said Martin

"Female wasps have to crawl inside the fig and they lay their eggs there and then it's basically this symbiotic relationship."

In other words, any Fig Newton you eat could be made up of what Martin called "hundreds and hundreds of tiny wasps," not to mention all the bug parts ground up during the normal factory process.

Honey is basically 'bee vomit'

For Martin, the "eek" factor over insects in food is a little paradoxical.

After all, even though its production is worth around $150 million dollars a year, honey is really just the sugary secretion of bees.

What bees do is they travel around to different flowers and they drink the nectar … then they barf it out."- Daniella Martin, entomophagy advocate

"For some reason they love to get freaked out by the idea of eating bugs but eating bee vomit? That's apparently fine. That's all sweet and good," said Martin.

"What bees do is they travel around to different flowers and they drink the nectar and they store it in their honey stomach where it basically concentrates and then they barf it out. They fan it with their wings so that it kind of condenses and that's honey."

Martin pointed out there's a reason why insect byproducts are used in so many of our favourite treats — they're naturally edible.

Beekeepers scoop out some honey in this file photo taken at Clovermead Honey Farm in Aylmer, Ont. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC)

"We know it's not going to harm us internally and it is highly natural," she said. "Unless you have some kind of allergy to it which is a possibility, but essentially this is something that comes from the earth and it is very easy to use. Humans show in general no problems with digesting it."

In other words, Martin joked "it's really nothing something to bug out over."


Written and produced by Falice Chin.

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