It goes without saying that popping some candy in your mouth is one of the best sensations. After all, it’s a link back to our childhood, to a carefree time when we didn’t have to worry about sugar intake or weight gain – or anything, really. But a lot of the candy we eat hides a dark and, arguably, pretty disgusting secret.
But it’s a secret that’s been revealed by Belgian filmmaker Alina Kneepkens in a series of short films for TV show Over Eten, which is about where our food comes from. Even if you were aware of what goes into most gummy candies, some of the scenes in Kneepkens’ film may well shock you.
In fact, a few of the descriptions and images are downright disturbing – and it’s not just gummy bears that hide this secret. In fact, cola bottles, marshmallows and a whole swathe of other sugary treats are all reportedly made using the same process. But what is this process, and why is it so awful?
The first gummy bears came along in 1920, created by Hans Riegel, the founder of Haribo. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that his son, also called Hans Riegel, perfected the squished, cutesy animal sweets we all know and love today.
According to the Haribo company, if you laid all of the gummy bears the company creates in a single year end to end, the line would be long enough to stretch all the way around the world four times. That’s a lot of candy, but that line might diminish once you hear what goes into making them.
While gummy candy is very much marketed at youngsters, thanks to its friendly-faced mascots, bright colors and appealing shapes, what goes on behind the scenes is perhaps more suited to a mature audience. And that’s despite the seemingly innocent end of the production process.
Indeed, when the gummy bears roll off the production line they’re the usual glistening lumps of cuteness, but track back through the process and things start to get nasty. That’s because of the addition of one particular ingredient.
Working backwards – as Kneepkens’ film does – when the ingredient in question, gelatin, is added to the mix, it doesn’t look too bad. Basically, it’s put into the sweets to give them their chewy texture. In fact, if a sweet has that malleability in your mouth, then there’s a good bet it’s got gelatin in it.
But what is gelatin? Well, to put it in the simplest terms, it’s a byproduct of the meat industry. In the case of the gelatin featured in Kneepkens’ film, it comes from pigs. But how the gelatin is extracted from the carcasses of dead animals puts a darker spin on the sugary treat.
The gelatin is added at the start of the creation of the sweets. It’s basically a glue, a gelling agent used to hold together the other ingredients. When added to hot water it becomes a gel, solidifying as it cools down.
But take another step back down the production line and you’ll start to see gelatin closer to its original form. It’s added to the sweets as a powder, which is stored in giant warehouses. But with another step back in the process, things get ickier.
Gelatin is stored as stringy fibers that are kept in vats. These look like something from a horror film – pale white strands of an unfamiliar-looking material. And yet this isn’t even the most disgusting stage of the process. For that, we need to head even further back down the production line.
The gelatin is extracted from the skins of dead animals. It’s wheeled around in what look like the sort of carts you might find at a hospital, then put through a machine that minces it down further. The cheery gummy bears certainly seem a long way off now.
But going further back reveals even more gruesome details. The film shows that the carcasses have to be prepared in a special way to ensure that the skin can be removed. Basically, they’re passed through a series of blow torches to crisp them up.
However, perhaps worst of all, it’s not just the skin that’s used to create gelatin. Bones, ligaments and tendons are all included in the substance that makes your candy chewy. Basically, a lot of the parts of the pig that don’t make it to the table are mushed down and sold to us as part of our confectionary.
Some aspects of the process that takes us from pig to gummy bear are just too graphic to show here. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but now it’s hard not to picture them every time we open a packet of candy that’s got some chew to it.
In fact, there might be no need for all this gore to go into your gummy bears. In fact, there are a number of substances – most notably agar, which is extracted from algae – that could replace gelatin in gummy candies, and some claim we might be none the wiser if it did.
After all, gelatin is flavorless – it’s only there to add that squishy bite that we all associate with the sugary confectionary. But rather than using less gruesome methods of creating that sensation, most major candy companies persist with gelatin.
So the next time you’re enjoying a cola bottle or a gummy bear, it’s probably best to not think about the stomach-churning process that’s led to it getting to your mouth. Or, indeed, about all that pig skin and bone that’s giving it that lovely chewy texture.