Quick answer: Nerds are not vegan.
...And it's actually an ingredient that comes in up more candies than you might suspect.
Ingredients in Nerds
As you probably already knew, Nerds have quite a bit of artificial food coloring. You can tell just by looking at them—they're so brightly colored that they're almost neon.
But the sheer amount of artificial coloring is not the problem with the candy, at least not where vegan status is concerned. The issue, however, is not totally unrelated to the food dyes in Nerds.
Take a look at the ingredients for the Gotta-Have Grape and Seriously Strawberry flavors, courtesy of Fooducate:
Ingredients: Dextrose, Sugar, Malic Acid, and Less than 2% of Corn Syrup, Artificial Flavors, Carnauba Wax, Color Added, Carmine Color, Blue 1, Blue 1 Lake, Blue 2, Blue 2 Lake, Red 40, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 5, Yellow 5 Lake, Yellow 6, Yellow 6 Lake.
Why is carmine color highlighted? Because it's not just another food dye—it's the culprit.
Carmine is a deep red pigment derived from the cochineal insect. That's right. Nerds contain bugs.
Now you see why Nerds are definitely, 100 percent not vegan, and why food dye is part of the problem.
If you're wondering how carmine is made, it's produced by crushing cochineal insects into a powder, then boiling them with ammonia or sodium carbonate.
This is then filtered and combined with alum to create the final product with the red hue, a product that companies will commonly refer to as:
- Carmine lake
- Crimson lake
- Natural red 4**
- C.I. 75470
**Note that carmine can be hiding in foods with "natural red" in the nutrition section of the label. This is important to remember if you see any product that asserts that it contains no artificial dyes. Technically, bugs aren't artificial, but they're still...well, bugs.
Carmine is quite a prevalent ingredient in many standard products sold throughout the U.S. and the world. It's in shampoo, oil paints, artificial flowers, makeup and foods from yogurt to candy.
So how can you tell which products will contain carmine? Generally, it's more likely that you'll find it under one of its various titles in more processed foods that aren't necessarily organic or natural.
Of course, it may be tougher to superficially distinguish which candies are most likely to contain it, since candy is far from health food. It's probably safest to assume that unless a red, pink or purplish candy is labeled "vegan," it could be made with carmine.
At least now you know that Nerds have carmine in them.
Alternative Vegan Options
You don't have to go without when you're in the mood for a sweet and sour candy. Nerds may be out, but there are plenty of vegan alternatives to them.
When it's something sweet and tart that you're craving, go for any of these:
- Airheads: Sweet, tangy and chewy like taffy.
- Jolly Rancher Hard Candy: You won't want to chew it, but it has the same sorts of flavors as Nerds.
- Pixy Stix: These are really just flavored sugar, but so are Nerds in some respect, aren't they?
- Smarties: The old fashioned (vegan) version of Nerds.
- Sour Patch Kids: Chewy, sugary and pleasantly sour.
- SweeTarts: A little more tart than Smarties, if those don't do the trick.
- Skittles: A long-time and treasured favorite.
To read more about our stance on sugar (a controversial ingredient) see this post: Is Sugar Vegan?
*Be sure to double check the labels on these as they could change and there tons of different flavors.
To summarize, Nerds are not vegan because they contain a red food dye referred to as carmine (as well as a few other names) and made from the bodies of cochineal insects.
But there are lots of vegan sweet-and-sour candy options readily available in major supermarkets like Target and Walmart as well as places like gas stations and movie theaters.
Carmine is a pervasive ingredient you'll want to watch out for not only in candy, but also in everyday household products like shampoo and cosmetics.
Knowledge of the various names this non-vegan food dye goes by and careful scrutiny of labels when you see red, pink or purplish tints will be your guide to determining which ones to avoid.
Want to make your own vegan candy? Here's a video that will show you how to create vegan gummy candy that you can flavor with any natural sweet and tart fruit juices you like.