Even if you’re not someone who regularly eats candy, you might still grab a chocolate bar or a couple of ginger chews at your local health store and feel OK about eating it. After all, it’s good for you—right?
Well, yes, sort of. “Healthy” or natural-branded candy has come a long way since the days of yogurt-covered raisins, honey drops and carob kisses. You can find green tea-infused organic dark chocolate, vitamin C-fortified gummy bears, even melatonin-spiked bedtime snacks. The offerings tend toward upscale and gourmet, and even taste good, says Dawn Van Hee, owner of an online candy store, naturalcandystore.com. Although there is no legal definition of “natural” candy, it tends to be different in these ways.
It has no artificial colors or flavors. “Candy is probably the most concentrated source in our diets of artificial colors and flavors, which are made from petroleum,” Van Hee says. “A lot of people want to avoid artificial colors and flavors, especially for their kids.” Some evidence links certain food dyes with hyperactivity, allergic reactions, even cancer. Natural candy is colored with vegetable dyes, which are still concocted in a laboratory, but made from red beets, annatto (yellow) and anthocyanins (red and blue, from fruit). The flavors are derived from non-petroleum sources.
It tends to have fewer allergens. People looking for candy that is gluten-free, peanut-free or even free of dyes and preservatives that can cause allergic reactions tend to look for candy labeled natural, Van Hee says. Stores that specialize in allergen-free candy tend to carry brands by manufacturers who make only allergy-free candy, which cuts the risk for contamination and recalls.
The ingredients tend to be better quality. Instead of high fructose corn syrup, for instance, natural candy tends to have regular white cane sugar, which is making a comeback, Van Hee says. Or it may have evaporated cane juice, which is a less refined version of white cane sugar. Honey, molasses and agave nectar are other sweeteners people look for, she says. Natural candy tends to have less sugar than regular brands, which are often little more than sugar plus artificial flavors and colors. To make up for the lack of sugar, the candy often contains more fruit, nuts, more cacao in the chocolate, better oils, and whole grains.
It may be organic or fair trade. People concerned about how food is grown and produced can find candy made with only organic ingredients. That means whatever goes into it has been grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, or petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Fair trade is a designation developed to help consumers support products that come from farms that have been certified to provide fair wages and safe working conditions. Chocolate, like coffee, is a big fair trade concern.
It suits vegans. You might not think there could be animal products in the candy you are eating, but if you can decipher the ingredients list, you might be surprised. Gelatin is the big one, but casein (caseinate) and lactose (from milk) and lecithin and albumin (from eggs) can be hidden in candy.