A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is some candy coated with beetle juice?

November 6, 1992

Dear Cecil:

A friend recently told me that her boss, an Orthodox Jew, could not eat M&Ms due to their shells being coated with beetle juice. Restricting bug intake doesn't seem extraordinary considering Talmudic law (which might be more discerning than federal food regulations but who knows), but what about the accusation that insects are being used to make the candy coating that melts in your mouth, not in your hand?

Cecil replies:

You didn't get the whole story. The rumor is that the coating is made from a secretion of the lac beetle, the same insects used to make a well-known floor coating. Aha, you think, M&Ms don't melt in your hand because they paint 'em with shellac! Worth a giggle (maybe), but untrue. The folks at M&M/Mars say the coating is a mixture of sugar and corn syrup that is buffed to a high sheen by tumbling the M&Ms together during manufacture.

The story about the beetles has been circulating quite awhile. It turned up in 1991 in a kid's book called Kids Can Save the Animals; after a little prodding from M&M/Mars the publisher admitted having goofed. (Apparently some candies similar to M&Ms do use a bug-based confectioner's glaze.) Although M&Ms aren't certified as kosher, a company spokesman says, "to the best of our knowledge they would be accepted under kosher dietary laws." That probably wouldn't satisfy an Orthodox Jew, but for purposes of this question we can give Mars the benefit of the doubt.

The truth comes out

Dear Cecil:

I am enclosing for your interest a copy of a letter I received in 1984 from Nabisco outlining their use of shellac in Junior Mints. This makes it quite definite and they weren't shy about saying it!

Cecil replies:

I quote from the letter, which was written by Karen Gajda of Nabisco's consumer services department:

"The 'shellac' listed as an ingredient on our Junior Mints box is more commonly recognized as confectioners' glaze. It is refined from the secretion of the lac insect and is free from all metallic and foreign matter contamination. This shellac glaze is guaranteed of food grade quality and is … recognized as a safe edible ingredient …. The reason that it is used in the manufacture of Junior Mints is that it provides excellent protection against dampness and ensures that the product you buy is of the highest freshness and quality possible."

One more for the ick list

To the Teeming Millions:

Pursuant to our recent disquisition on insect extracts in candy, a reader has sent us a newsletter from the Chicago Rabbinical Council, a kosher certifying agency. I quote: "Due to changes in government regulations, virtually every processor of fruit cocktail is using a non-kosher artificial coloring in the cherries. This coloring is called carmine and is derived from the dried bodies of the cochineal insect." (Actually cochineal is a red dye made from the bug Dactylopius coccus.)

Ooh, gross, some will say. But my attitude is, I'll swallow anything, as long as they don't make me eat it till it's dead.

2012 update

To the Teeming Millions:

Junior Mints are now certified kosher, but not because the confectioner's glaze has been removed. Rather, we're told by the people at Tootsie Roll, the current maker of Junior Mints, it's because gelatin has been dispensed with.

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