What the BLEEP is candy corn?

The scariest part of Halloween isn’t the 32 grams of sugar per serving in those multicolored triangles

October 30, 2013

Ladies and gents, it’s Halloween time again. And like all true Halloween fans, I’m in it for one thing, and one thing only: the candy. And there isn’t a more iconic choice for Halloween candy than candy corn.

Let’s play a game: Pretend you’ve just met someone from another planet who has never heard of Halloween or candy corn. How would you describe it? Physically, that’s easy. It’s triangular, with three stripes of color: yellow for the base, orange for the middle stripe, and white at the top. Everyone on Pinterest knows this.

But how would you describe its taste? It’s definitely sweet. But is there anything else specific about it? It has a unique taste—but what is it, exactly? Candy corn is the Swedish Fish of Halloween candy; we don’t know what it tastes like, but we know we don’t hate it.

To find out what makes up this seasonal treat, in a grandiose sacrifice, I purchased my very own bag of Brach’s Candy Corn, America’s #1 Candy Corn. And now, as I stuff my face with it, I’m going to tell you what the bleep candy corn actually is.

While companies who produce candy corn will inevitably vary their ingredients, here are the ones directly from the back of my Brach’s bag: Sugar, Corn Syrup, Confectioner’s Glaze, Salt, Honey, Dextrose, Artificial Flavor, Gelatin, Titanium Dioxide Color, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 3, Blue 1, and Sesame Oil.

Ingredients on that list I recognize: Sugar, Corn Syrup, Confectioner’s Glaze, Salt, Honey, Dextrose, Gelatin, and Sesame Oil. The overwhelmingly sweet taste of candy corn is beginning to make a lot of sense.

Ingredients on that list I have questions about: Artificial flavor. (What IS its flavor? Ah, now I understand: how can we know what it tastes like if they don’t even know!)

Ingredients on that list that I don’t know, but that sound like chemicals (because they are!): Titanium Dioxide Color, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 3, and Blue 1.

Let’s start with Titanium Dioxide: the FDA lists Titanium Dioxide (TiO2 ) Color as a “color additive,” and apparently its been FDA approved since 1966. Titanium Dioxide is widely used in a variety of everyday items like drugs, cosmetics, and food. Regarding its use in food, this 2011 article from the journal Radiology and Oncology states that it’s used for whitening and texture.

However it also states that, “despite the fact that TiO2submicron- and nano-sized particles are widely used as food and pharmaceutical additives, information on their toxicity and distribution upon oral exposure is very limited.”

And this Material Safety and Data Sheet (MSDS) on Titanium Dioxide states that it is a “Possible carcinogen (tumorgen) based on animal data,” but that no data on humans is available at this time, and that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has found “inadequate evidence for carcinogenicity in humans.”

Basically, while Titanium Dioxide is FDA approved for use in some things, it could potentially be harmful in certain types or amounts of doses, or when used inappropriately. Just like most things, including food dyes.

Food colorants, such as Yellow #6, Yellow #5, Red #3, and Blue #1 are all common additives used to color food, and you might be used to seeing them listed on food packaging. But while these four dyes are US FDA approved for use in foods, some other countries view their use as controversial. Some research has questioned their effects on the body, suggesting they may be linked to increased childhood hyperactivity. All of this has warranted different labeling practices outside the States. And in 2010, a US group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote this highly publicized paper, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” in which they state that food dyes cannot be considered safe because they are not adequately tested.

But Linda Katz, Director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) states here in an FDA consumer update that, “color additives are very safe when used properly,” and to remember, “there is no such thing as absolute safety of any substance.” She also adds that the FDA approves colors based on their determination of “a reasonable certainty of no harm.” Most processed foods, like candy corn, will have these additives, states the FDA.

So, the best we can do as consumers is to be cognizant and engaged, and to know what we put in our bodies. Until the FDA decides it wants to change the guidelines to using color additives across the board, its up to the individual to decide if they want to consume chemicals and processed foods.

Personally, I’ve been eating candy corn consistently through the writing and research of this piece. What can I say? I enjoy a good Halloween horror story. But while Brach’s candy corn might be made with real honey, as the package touts, there’s no denying it’s also made with real artificial flavors. And a lot of dye.

About the Author

Caitlin Q. Davis

Caitlin Davis is a recent graduate of Simmons College, where she received a B.A in English and a minor in biology. Despite her often-hilarious fear of needles, Caitlin has managed to become interested in medicine and reading about its biological properties. She is looking forward to learning more about all aspects of science journalism during her time at SHERP.



Hound Dog says:

Personally, I never touch the stuff. If it ain’t chocolate, I don’t want it, Halloween notwithstanding. ! LOL

Rebecca says:

Red 3 is listed by the EPA as an insecticide. FD&C dyes are also contaminated with arsenic, mercury, and lead. Yellow dye is linked with asthma and eczema too. I made candy corn last year that turned out so delicious (uses Golden Syrup). Plus when you make it yourself, you get to choose the shapes. ;) Here’s a link – We used India Tree natural liquid dyes, but you can also buy them from Chocolate Craft, Seelect, Maggie’s Naturals, and some of the Chefmaster line:
Thanks for writing about synthetic dyes.

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