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What’s in This?: Red Hots

All 10 ingredients in these tiny spice pebbles, explained (yep, even shellac, aka bug slime — no, seriously)

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: Red Hots, which are made from 10 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down as they appear online.

The Ingredients

1) Sugar: One serving of Red Hots (25 pieces) contains 12 grams of sugar, which is a substantial but not insane amount. 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. Just try to keep it to 25 pieces or fewer.

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

3) Acacia (Gum Arabic): Acacia is a large genus of shrubs, lianas and trees. The secretions from these plants are typically turned into a gum, which can be used as a bulking agent, emulsifier, stabilizer, thickener, foaming agent, gelling agent, suspending agent and whipping agent. This is likely what creates the chewy base of a Red Hot.

4) Artificial Flavor: Artificial flavors are chemical compounds created in a lab that mimic a natural flavor in some way — cinnamon (and maybe some other stuff), in the case of Red Hots. Lab-made flavors may sound unhealthy, but the amounts used in our foods are almost negligible, so fret not.

5) Confectioner’s Glaze (Shellac): Confectioner’s glaze is made primarily of shellac, a resin secreted by certain insects in India and Thailand — and I refuse to eat Red Hots ever again. It adds a shiny sheen that protects these candies from moisture exposure, and won’t do you any harm, but again: It’s bug goo. So, are Red Hots vegan? Not if you care about bugs.

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 again gives these Red Hots a nice sheen.

7) White Mineral Oil: White mineral oil is a petroleum product that keeps Red Hots from sticking together in the package, and is apparently safe to consume when refined to meet certain FDA specifications. 

8) Red 40: Like many artificial colors, red 40 is 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 again, fret not.

9) Cornstarch: Cornstarch is starch derived from, well, corn. It probably adds a little bulk, and once more, keeps these Red Hots from becoming one giant Red Hot in the package.

10) Sunflower Lecithin: Sunflower lecithin is a component of fat found in — you guessed it — sunflowers. It mainly works as an emulsifier, helping the many ingredients in Red Hots mix together, but it can also extend the shelf life.

The Takeaway

As with pretty much every candy, your biggest concern when eating Red Hots should be sugar. (The bug goo is nasty, I know, but sugar is much, much worse for your body.) So, just try not to eat too many, okay?