For some reason, Facebook has decided to target me with ads and posts about gummies. To be fair, I do like gummies. My husband recently bought me a small back of cola gummy bottles, which I love but hardly ever buy. I also enjoy the occasional Sour Patch Kid or sour gummy worm. I sometimes make gummy bear thumbprint cookies for the holidays. I even own a gummy bear mold and have tried my hand at making homemade gummies. I do not by any means hate gummies. But Facebook has begun bombarding me with posts for non-GMO, naturally-colored, naturally-sweetened gummies — as if certain brands or recipes of gummies were healthier than others. I plead with you: Can we stop pretending that gummies can be healthy?
First appeared an ad for gummies colored with natural food dyes such as black carrot juice. The ad began with a questionable claim: “Did you know natural food coloring is a much better alternative to artificial colors?” Not one to take claims from companies trying to sell me product at face value without question, I asked about data showing that natural food coloring is a “much better alternative” to artificial colors? Many fans of the brand made the tired claim that natural equals safer and even tried to compare feeding artificial food coloring to a child with filling the same child up with gasoline at the pump. The company eventually replied that, as evidenced by the anecdotes in the comments to my question, their goal is provide a delicious alternative to gummies made with artificial food colorings. No data was actually provided on the safety of natural food coloring versus artificial food coloring.
I cannot blindly accept the claim from a brand selling naturally-colored gummies that gummies made with natural food coloring are somehow better than gummies made with artificial colors. First, natural does not equal safer. If you want a natural red food dye, reach for some cochineal, which is made from the crushed carcasses of an insect native to South and Central American. Use of the natural food coloring began with the Aztecs. Unfortunately, cochineal can cause a severe allergic reaction in some individuals. For someone with an allergy to cochineal, a synthetic red food dye is the only safe alternative. Therefore, naturally-colored gummies are not a healthier option compared to artificially-colored gummies. An article posted on the American Chemical Society website sums up the erroneous idea that natural dyes are safer than synthetic dyes perfectly:
“It is tempting to think that natural products are healthier than artificial ones. But that is not always the case. Cochineal extract is not the only natural dye that can pose a health risk. Serious allergic reactions have also been reported with annatto and saffron—yellow food colorings derived from natural products.”
A little over a week later, Facebook delivered an ad to me from the same gummy brand. This ad touted the “quality attributes” of the gummy bears produced by the brand: non-GMO, organic, vegan, gluten-free, and naturally-colored. Like natural, organic does not equal better. Organic does not even mean natural. Organic foods are not necessarily pesticide-free. Certain pesticides that contain natural substances like soaps, lime sulfur and hydrogen peroxide are allowed for organic farming. Vegan, which means “using or containing no animal products,” also does not equal better. Oreos are technically vegan, but no one can claim that the delicious chocolate wafer cookies are a health food. Traditional gummies consist of a mixture of sugar, glucose syrup, starch, flavoring, food coloring, citric acid, and gelatin and contain absolutely no gluten, largely making the gluten-free label a marketing ploy. As for GMO versus non-GMO foods, science agrees that GMO foods are safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO foods. Labels such as non-GMO, organic, vegan, gluten-free, and naturally-colored are simply marketing tactics used to sell gummies to a specific demographic, usually at higher price than conventional gummies.
Then came the recipe for homemade gummies made with strained raspberry puree, water, honey, lemon juice, and gelatin. While the recipe sounds absolutely delicious, I took issue with the description of the homemade gummies as “naturally sweet.” Adding honey does not make the recipe naturally sweet. Honey is an added sweetener, albeit a natural sweetener. But sugar too is a natural sweetener. Naturally-sweet implies no added sweeteners. A more accurate description would be “naturally sweetened.” Furthermore, honey is not necessarily healthier than sugar. Per tablespoon, honey contains slightly more calories than sugar (64 versus 45). Honey contains fructose, glucose, and sucrose while sugar is pure sucrose. Both sugar and honey are safe in moderation, but both are added sweeteners in the case of gummy bears.
Now for my plea: Can we stop pretending that gummies can be healthy? As I already mentioned, a basic gummy bear consists of a mixture of sugar, glucose syrup, starch, flavoring, food coloring, citric acid, and gelatin. Some gummies are made with pectin, starch, or another substitution instead of gelatin to make the end product suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Specific ingredients also vary by brand, variety, and recipe. In the end, however, gummies contain mostly empty calories and a whole lot of sugar. Even gummy vitamins, while containing vitamins and minerals, contains a huge amount of sugar compared to nutrients. Regardless of specific ingredients or marketing ploy, gummies are sugar snacks and are in no way, shape, or form healthy. GMO or non-GMO, vegan or conventional, naturally or artificially colored: Sugar is still sugar, and gummies are still candy. Eat more whole fruit, enjoy gummies in moderation, but please, please stop pretending that gummies can be healthy.
Cochineal: Food Coloring Made from Bugs: http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/bugjuice.asp
The Debate About GMO Safety Is Over, Thanks To A New Trillion-Meal Study: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2014/09/17/the-debate-about-gmo-safety-is-over-thanks-to-a-new-trillion-meal-study/#2dbc4ae88a63
Eating with Your Eyes: The Chemistry of Food Colorings: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2015-2016/october-2015/food-colorings.html
Gummy Bear: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gummy_bear
Organic Pesticide Ingredients: http://npic.orst.edu/ingred/organic.html
Prevalence and Impacts of Genetically Engineered Feedstuffs on Livestock Populations: https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/articles/92/10/4255
Can We Stop Pretending That Gummies Can Be Healthy?: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gummy_cola_bottles.jpg and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gummy_sharks.jpg