What exactly goes into all those sweets?

What exactly goes into all those sweets?
/ Illustration: Elena Martín
  • The kids' favourite gums contain gelling agents, juices, artificial colours, aromas... and vast quantities of sugar

When you read this headline, and think of the typical gummy, stretchy sweet, some may think they are all petroleum jelly, but no. The main ingredient in all sweets, even the jelly kind, is sugar. And this is usually added in large quantities, although under different names, such as glucose syrup, fructose and sucrose. That's why people like them so much.

Sugar, as well as giving food a sweet flavour, activates the dopamine and opioids system of the brain, which are associated with wellbeing and pleasure, and creates an addiction similar to that of drugs, according to research by the Aarhus University in Denmark, which was published recently in the Scientific Reports magazine.

For that reason, and the consequences it can have on health (obesity, diabetes, caries, hypertension, cholesterol), sugar should be consumed with caution.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned on several occasions that free sugars, the type that is added to sweets, should not account for more than 10 per cent of a day's calorie consumption, for children or adults. That means around 25 grammes for a diet of 2,000 calories, but a handful of sweets easily contains more than the recommended amount.

"For every 100 grammes of sweets we eat, we take in between 50 and 80 grammes of sugar and between 400 and 500 calories," warns Teresa Cenarro, vice-president of the Spanish paediatricians association AEPAP and a member of its working group on Gastroenterology and Nutrition.

The WHO directives do not apply to intrinsic sugars, in other words those present in whole, fresh fruit and vegetables, but they do apply to juices, which some sweets contain.

The Spanish Royal Decree 348/2011, which regulates the quality and composition of these products, divides them into different categories. Sweets can be hard (lollipops), soft (toffees), compressed or gums, and the definition also includes gels, liquorice, foams and fondants, candies, lozenges, sugared almonds, caramelised nuts and chewing gums.

The recipes vary between the brands of sweets, but their labels all say they contain "sugar or added sweeteners". The latter are those that appear with the letter E followed by a number, such as sorbitol (E-420) or saccharine (E-954).

With regard to what they are made of, to quote a few examples, hard sweets "are the result of a highly concentrated crystallised mass which is principally composed of a minimum of 80 per cent sugar, glucose syrup and/or inverted sugar," explains Silvia del Lamo, a doctor in Food Science and collaborating lecturer in Health Science Studies at the Oberta Catalunya university.

Sweets such as gums contain gelling agents like gelatine, which is a collagen principally obtained from the cartilage of a pig or from fish; and gums, such as arabic or xanthum gum. There are also gelatines suitable for vegans, such as agar-agar and pectin, and some which are not suitable for coeliacs, such as some modified starches. They usually all contain bees wax, to make them shiny and stop them sticking together.

In some fruit jelly sweets, the gelling agent is partly substituted by fruit pulp. "That is a more natural alternative, but it is not really healthier, because the calorie value is similar," says Del Lamo.

Chewing gum is "made with a chewable plastic or elastic base, which may be natural rubber or synthetic, and is insoluble in water," she says.

Smaller portions

Given that people are becoming increasingly more interested in what they are eating, the food companies have found themselves obliged to develop formulas adapted to changing demands, including sweet manufacturers.

As a result, there are now mini-sizes, whose portions are smaller to reduce calorie value and sugar intake. Others have focused less on the amount and more on the content, such as 'sugar-free' options which "contain polyalcohols" in its place, warns dietician and nutritionist Lujan Soler.

These are non-digestible carbohydrates which, although they have fewer calories than sugar, can produce gastro-intestinal problems if consumed in excess.

New products also include sweets which promise extra health benefits, by incorporating some healthy ingredients like ginger, collagen, Omega 3 or essential oils.

Soler, however, recommends that anyone who wants an occasional treat should look for other alternatives, because these "provide nothing in the way of nutrition".

She suggests options such as such as home-made cake made with cane sugar, or bars of dried fruits and nuts mixed with pure cocoa.