Can Candy Hurt You?

May 07 00:00 2001 Print This Article

By and large, candy isn't considered a threat to health, with the exception of the hazard of dental caries, or tooth decay. By definition, candy contains sugar, which is the prime source of sustenance for the ever-present bacteria responsible for cavities.

Some people are also convinced that in children, sweets are a major culprit in causing hyperactivity and other behavior and cognitive (learning) problems. Recent evidence suggests that it's unlikely. Results of a study examining this issue, funded by the National Institutes of Health, were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 1994. Two groups of youngsters-- one suspected of being sugar-sensitive, the other presumed not to be--were fed a variety of carefully calibrated diets, including one high in sucrose (table sugar).

The researchers concluded that the higher-than-normal sugar regimen had no significant effect on either group of youngsters. Despite this conclusion, some physicians feel there may be isolated cases of unusual sensitivity in some children, whether to sugar or to some other dietary element. The child's doctor is the best source of advice and should be consulted before any dietary manipulation is attempted.

Sometimes, as with any food, health and safety hazards may crop up in candy, notes Gene Newberry, acting director of CFSAN's office of field programs, which is on the lookout for such introduced hazards. Carelessness in quality control and sanitation--violation of the good manufacturing practices on which the safety of all our packaged foods depends--might, for example, result in contamination with microorganisms that could cause illness. But this has happened, according to Newberry, only on rare occasions; in most cases, the contamination has been discovered before the product has reached the public, so people have not been harmed. "Responsible manufacturers," says Newberry, "keep up constant vigilance, especially at key points in production at which the product is particularly susceptible to accidental contamination. If safety deviations are discovered, production is halted and the situation is corrected immediately."

FDA backs up this basic manufacturers' responsibility with its own unannounced plant inspections, taking random samples for analysis. FDA also looks closely at all imported foods, including candy, to be sure they contain no substances, such as flavors and coloring agents, not approved by FDA as safe for human consumption.

Another important candy safety hazard is the risk of choking, especially in small children. In some cases, the risk is inherent in the product: A hard candy, such as a sourball or lollipop, or a cluster of nuts, while perfectly safe for an older child or adult, could easily block an infant's or toddler's far narrower windpipe. Such products should be off-limits for youngsters under the age of about 5 years.

Otherwise safe candy can be made unsafe when potentially harmful non-food components are introduced; FDA can ban such components as unsafe adulterants. Here, the FDA's authority is limited to elements not of "practical functional value" to the product, according to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Thus, for example, FDA can't ban lollipop sticks, which serve an essential functional purpose, but can prohibit items that are not truly functional. If a manufacturer attempts to incorporate prizes or trinkets inside a food product, for instance, FDA can take action. "Importers, from time to time, attempt to bring in such products as chocolate Easter eggs with small toys inside," Newberry reports. "We don't want them on the market because they're a real choking hazard. We can, and do, prohibit them as non-nutritive substances that are definitely not essential to the product itself."

Label Requirements

By law, all packaged foods must bear a label listing ingredients in order of predominance; candy is no exception. Every package of hard candies or chocolate bar you buy must offer such a listing. As part of the new food labeling rules under the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, manufacturers must include substantially more nutrition information on labels than in the past. As of May 8, 1994, every candy product (along with other packaged foods) must have on its label an ingredients list plus a new-format data summary, headed "Nutrition Facts," designed to help health-conscious consumers best relate content to nutrition concerns. The new labels include such information as calorie content; such elements as carbohydrates, fats and protein; key vitamins and minerals; and, for each, its "daily value" percentage on the basis of a 2000-calorie diet.

An example: The label on one popular brand of chocolate-with-peanuts bar, using the new format, includes the information that it provides 280 calories, 8 percent of the daily value for carbohydrate, and a significant 34 percent of the daily value for saturated fat. The mandatory May 8, 1994, deadline for the new labels applies not to sales but to the actual incorporation of the label in the packaging. "Consumers may still see the old labels for some time," Michelle Smith notes, "depending on when the packaging was completed and the label applied." The earlier labels carried the required ingredients list, and some also included nutritional data, which were then optional.

So now if you decide to indulge your "sweet tooth" you know exactly what you're biting into! While chocolate, like most fruits and nuts, comes from trees, the seed of the "chocolate tree," as it's sometimes called, can be spun off in a number of guises. Those derivatives can be further altered in flavor, consistency, and nutritional value through combination with such items as sugars and dairy products. Thus, standards have been devised so that consumers who prefer the creamy lightness of milk chocolate, for instance, to the zestier bite of bittersweet can satisfy their cravings.

To "promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers" (to quote the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act), FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has the authority to set standards of identity for just about every processed food, including chocolate. This means that both producers and consumers can know with certainty that milk chocolate, for example, consistently refers to chocolate containing set minimum quantities of both chocolate and milk solids.

What makes milk chocolate different from dark chocolate? All chocolate (as well as cocoa) is derived from the seeds (beans) of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, native to the American tropics. The heart of the beans, called "nibs," are contained in foot-long pods and are additionally protected by individual outer shells. When finely ground, nibs become "chocolate liquor," consisting of both cocoa solids and cocoa butter, which are separable. Proportions of these constituents used in chocolate products can be important to the consumer (one chocolate form or variety may, for example, contain more fat than another), as well as to the manufacturer (one may be more or less costly than another). These proportions also affect flavor.

FDA standards for cacao products were updated in 1993, and the final amended regulations were published in the May 21, 1993, Federal Register. Those rules are highly technical, down to prescribing analytic techniques and specifying approved processing methods. Specifications for cacao nibs themselves are offered (they may contain "not more than 1.75 percent by weight" of residual shell), as are the definitions of intermediate and end products, including chocolate liquor ("contains not less than 50 percent nor more than 60 percent by weight of cacao fat," among other requirements). There are also standards for breakfast cocoa, sweet chocolate, semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, milk chocolate, skim milk chocolate, and so on. Most popular, as examination of any candy counter will attest, is milk chocolate, with the semisweet, darker variety a distant second. Milk chocolate's main ingredients, besides the chocolate, are sugar, cocoa butter, and milk; all three may be present in greater quantity than chocolate itself. Semisweet chocolate has a relatively higher proportion of chocolate (a minimum 35 percent chocolate liquor is specified). Both may also contain such optional ingredients as emulsifiers (stabilizers) and flavorings.

And then there's "white chocolate." Or is there? You may think you've eaten something called "white chocolate," but you haven't, at least not in the United States, unless you've recently sampled certain candies now being test-marketed. The test-marketing is taking place under temporary permits which took effect for a 15-month period starting no later than February 1994. Under those permits, issued by FDA in November 1993, two manufacturers were granted permission to market chocolate that deviates from the present standards for chocolate products. The manufacturers are test-marketing their products on a limited regional basis, to assess consumer acceptance. (The candies otherwise conform to existing chocolate product standards, and all added ingredients--such as sugar, dairy products, flavorings, and preservatives--meet FDA standards; all current labeling regulations apply.)

White chocolate, as defined by the permits, contains only the fat (cocoa butter), not the nonfat components (which also contain the color), from the ground cacao nibs; sugar, milk fats, and milk solids are also present in prescribed proportions. The test products being offered for consumer reaction are Polar Bears, distributed by Ganong Bros. of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, in Canada, and Hershey's Hugs,distributed by Hershey Chocolate of Hershey, Pa. Will this "chocolate" a pale stepchild to some chocolate lovers, despite its legitimate cacao heritage attain a place in FDA's official list of chocolate varieties? That will depend on agency review of petitions filed by Hershey and by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and on the reports filed by Ganong and Hershey, which will supplement the petitions with the test- marketing data.

If there isn't any current standard, what's the product you ate awhile back that looked like white chocolate? It was very much like what's being test-marketed, explains Nan Rainey, chief of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's food standards branch, except that it couldn't properly be called "white chocolate." It might actually have been called "white confectionery," says Rainey, or perhaps been labeled with such a legend as, "This is what Europeans call white chocolate."

Finally, what about candy that contains alcohol, such as liqueur-filled chocolates? That depends mainly on state regulations. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (which applies only to products in interstate commerce, not those produced and sold only within a state) says that alcohol not in excess of one-half of 1 percent by volume derived solely from the use of flavoring extracts is allowed in confectionery. Beyond that, alcohol is deemed an impermissible adulterant except that the rule doesn't apply "if the sale of such confectionery is permitted under the laws of the state in which such confectionery is intended to be offered for sale."

Source: This article originally appeared in the FDA Consumer and appears courtesy of the FDA

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