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© 2012, Brandon Cornett
Gummy bears. The name alone conjures images of a chewy, fruity, tasty little bear. Does it also conjure images of mysterious ingredients with controversial health records? It should. Most gummy bear and gummy worm products include Red #40, Blue #1 and carnauba wax. These ingredients are used to give gummies their color and gloss. But, as you will soon see, they may not be the best things to put in your body.
Picture of gummy bears, taken by Thomas Rosenau
Terminology note: These products are spelled in different ways. Some manufacturers call them gummy bears and worms, with a ‘y.’ Other companies label them as gummi bears, with an ‘i’ at the end. Either way, the ingredients are usually the same. The exact amount of the ingredients will vary from one product to the next. But the ingredients themselves are typically the same in all of these products. For the sake of consistency, I will refer to them as gummy bears (with a ‘y’) throughout this article.
Gummy bears were invented by Hans Riegel in the 1920s. Riegel was the owner of a German candy company named Haribo, which is still cranking out gummies today (they call them Gold-Bears). These gelatin-based candies became popular in the United States in the 1980s. In 1981, another German company named Trolli made the first gummy worm.
Since the invention of these products, more manufacturers have jumped onto the gummy train. Today, these products are produced by several different companies around the world, including the Ferrara Pan Candy Company in the United States. Side note: Ferrara Pan is the creator of Lemonheads, Red Hots and the Atomic Fireball.
The exact recipe for gummy bears and gummy worms will vary, depending on the company that makes the product. But there is a good deal of overlap with the ingredients they use. We compiled a database of ingredients from the gummy products of four different companies, and then cross-referenced for commonalities. We found the following ingredients in all products:
The last three items on this list are food dyes, also referred to as artificial colors.
Some manufacturers add “real fruit juice” to their products, as a selling point. This is usually added in the form of apple juice concentrate, as it is one of the cheapest fruit additives in the food-production industry.
Valiant Effort Award: We did find some gummy bears with more wholesome ingredients, compared to the list above. YummyEarth, for example, makes an organic gummy bear that does not contain food dyes or carnauba wax. This would seem to be a smarter product choice, as far as gummies go.
Here’s a fun little quiz for your next dinner party: What ingredient can be found in car polish, military-grade explosives and gummy bears? The answer is carnauba wax. Also referred to as palm wax, this compound is made from the leaves of the carnauba palm tree (Copernicia prunifera) of Brazil. The leaves are collected and then beaten to loosen their natural waxes. The wax is then bleached and refined further, through various processes.
Carnauba has many commercial uses, including car polish and dental floss. It is also one of the key “ingredients” used to make Composition B, a military-grade explosive found in hand grenades, rockets and land mines. It is typically one of the main ingredients in gummy bears and gummy worms. Tasty!
Red 40 is a common ingredient in many “junk food” products. It is an artificial food dye / coloring that also goes by the name Allura Red AC (and sometimes Food Red 17). In most of Europe, parents are warned against letting their children consume products with Red 40. It is actually banned in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Denmark, due to its potentially harmful properties. We found this ingredient listed in every gummy bear / worm product we sampled, with the exception of the YummyEarth product mentioned earlier.
Another fun fact: Most of the commonly used food dyes are made from petroleum. Yummy!
A 2007 research study conducted by the University of Southampton concluded that the consumption of Red 40 and other artificial coloring “can result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8 / 9-year-old children in the general population.” (source)
There has also been much debate about a possible link between food dyes such as Red 40 and cancer. This discussion been going on since the 1970s, when a Russian study linked Red #2 to cancer. Red 2 has since been banned in the United States as a suspected carcinogen, a substance that causes cancer. Refer to Chapter 3 of the FDA’s Food Compliance Program (“Foodborne Biological Hazards”) for more details on the banning of this substance.
Red 40 (the one used in gummy bears) eventually replaced Red 2 as the “go-to” ingredient for red or reddish-brown coloration. There has been a suggested link between Red 40 and cancer. But the evidence is lacking. Try as we might, we were unable to find any conclusive research confirming such a link. The only thing we could find was this:
In 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published a report entitled “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.” Among other things, this report shared the results of a meta-analysis they performed on previous studies. Here is what they said about Red 40 in particular:
“Red 40 was negative in the majority of genotoxicity assays performed, but positive in the in vivo comet assay in the glandular stomach, lungs, and colon of mice (Sasaki, Kawaguchi et al. 2002). That indicates that Red 40 can cause DNA damage in vivo.”
They also found fault with some of the previous studies performed on mice, looking for a link between Red 40 and cancer. Here is another quote from their report:
In the conclusion for this section of the report, the authors (CSPI) stated that Red 40 should not be used in foods.
We found Red 40 listed as an ingredient of every gummy bear and gummy worm product we examined, with the exception of the organic product made by YummyEarth. (Note: We do not work for or represent this company in any way.) There may well be other gummy bear products on the market that do not use Red 40 and other food dyes. But we did not come across them during the course of our research.
This article is not meant to be an argument for, or against, the consumption of gummy bears and related products. Eat a pound a day, if you like. We are not doctors, scientists or chemists. We are fact-finders and research nerds. All of this information is publicly available, if you know where to look. We have merely compiled the facts and history of gummy bear ingredients for your reading pleasure. You probably knew this already. But our imaginary lawyers insisted we tell you anyway.