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What’s in This?: Nerds

All 15 ingredients in these colorful specks, explained (yep, even carmine color, aka smashed bugs)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.

This edition: Rainbow Nerds, which are made from 15 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down as they appear online.

The Nerds Ingredients List

1) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like corn, and is chemically identical to glucose, or blood sugar. Fun fact: Dextrose has an especially high glycemic index, meaning it quickly raises blood sugar levels, so it’s used in IV solutions to treat low blood sugar and dehydration. People with diabetes might also consume dextrose tablets to raise their blood sugar levels if they become dangerously low. Because of this blood-sugar-boosting effect, consuming dextrose also provides an almost immediate jolt of energy — and then an inevitable crash.

2) Sugar: Nerds are an incredibly concentrated form of sugar, perhaps the most concentrated I’ve ever come across — one serving (a single tablespoon) contains 14 grams, or three and half sugar cubes. For reference, the American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 36 grams and women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day. That means one handful of Nerds can put you way over your suggested intake for the day.

3) Malic Acid: Malic acid occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, and it acts as a source of tartness in all kinds of sour candy.

4) Corn Syrup: Corn syrup is a liquid sweetener made of glucose (aka sugar). It might as well be liquid sugar, unhealthiness and all.

5) Natural Flavors: Natural flavors are taken from real food sources, like lime flavor taken from actual limes.

6) Carnauba Wax: “Carnauba wax is a water insoluble substance used as a glazing, bulking and anticaking agent,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, told me during my analysis of the ingredients in Orbit White Spearmint Gum. It can be especially useful for carrying flavors and scents, and it gives Nerds a nice sheen.

7) Carmine Color: Carmine color is a red food dye made from, uh, bugs called cochineals. Some people experience allergic reactions to cochineals, so the FDA requires that carmine color be distinctly noted on the ingredient list. It’s safe otherwise, though.

8) Color Added: Artificial colors, including many listed below, are known to be carcinogenic. However, as physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan explained during my analysis of Doritos, studies claiming this often use unreasonable amounts of artificial colors in their experimentation, so try not to worry too much, especially if you keep yourself to small portions of Nerds anyway.

9) Blue 1: See above.

10) Blue 1 Lake: The difference between blue 1 and blue 1 lake is that “lakes” are not water-soluble, and can therefore be mixed with oils, fats and sugars.

11) Blue 2 Lake: See above.

12) Red 40 Lake: See above.

13) Yellow 5: See above.

14) Yellow 5 Lake: See above.

15) Yellow 6: See above.

The Takeaway

So yeah, Nerds are just clumps of colored sugar (with some bugs mixed in). But save for the bugs, you already knew that, right?