The Darker Side of Black Licorice

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Trick or Treat

Want to test your own knowledge of which candies have tested positive for lead? Check out the “Trick or Treat” app from the team at Youth Radio Interactive. 

This Halloween, kids everywhere will be out trick or treating for candy. And while some might worry about the loot rotting our teeth, there’s another more potent risk. Traces of the powerful neurotoxin, lead, can be found in some candy. This isn’t a new concern. For more than a decade, we’ve known about harmful amounts of the metal showing up in chili-flavored sweets imported from Mexico. That problem was addressed, but the California Department of Public Health  has found lead in some candies made and distributed in the US.

One of the best known candy makers in the Bay Area is Jelly Belly. Its headquarters are in Fairfield, California, and the place looks kind of like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. There’s candy everywhere, and the air smells like a mixture of citrus, strawberries, and pure sugar.

The top three flavors, according to the Jelly Belly tour-guide, are Very Cherry, Butter Popcorn and Black Licorice. Black Licorice in particular may not be as sweet as it sounds. Earlier this year, Jelly Belly, and other candy manufacturers like Trader Joe’s and Panda got a notice of violation. The non-profit, Center for Environmental Health, found these companies’ black licorice tested positive for lead. Jelly Belly declined to comment. The Center for Environmental Health, as part of their agreement, isn’t releasing its test results.

Caroline Cox, the research director at the Center For Environmental Health, warns that lead is “a stunningly toxic metal.”  Obviously how stunning depends on how contaminated the candy is, and what other sources of lead kids are exposed to. Cox says, heavy cumulative exposure can create problems in school, adding that, “damage to the brain is essentially permanent.”

The Food and Drug Administration recommends a maximum of .1 parts per million lead in candy. That sounds tiny, but even a tiny amount could make you sick.  If lead is our problem as consumers, it’s also a big problem for the candy industry.  Laura Shumow is the director of Scientific and Regulatory affairs at the National Confectioners Association, with its 600 member companies.  She acknowledges the problem. “It absolutely is something that companies are aware of,” Shumow says. “It allows our member companies to investigate their own processes and their own supply chain, and understand the sourcing of these ingredients.”

The ingredient that’s causing trouble for black licorice appears to be molasses. Lead can come in as a result of pollutants in the soil or agricultural products like pesticide, which can contaminate the sugar cane that is then used to make molasses. And once that lead gets in, Laura Shumow explains, it’s hard to get out. “There aren’t very many mitigation techniques to take lead out of an ingredient once it has been exposed to lead,“ she says. “So in order to ensure that the food supply has very safe levels, what manufacturers need to do is to monitor their ingredients and test their ingredients and that those ingredients are meeting regulatory standards.”

The government currently doesn’t require companies to test all their ingredients before putting them into candy.  The Center for Environmental Health expects a settlement by the end of October, but many of the retailers and candy makers named in the suit have already agreed to pay fines and bring down lead levels in all the licorice candies they sell to below .035 parts per million by December.  Jelly Belly, Trader Joe’s, and Panda are among those that have agreed to cut down the lead in their products. The Center for Environmental Health is warning that Hershey, however–maker of Good & Plenty licorice–has not reached such an agreement. The company disputes the finding that there is any risk in eating their product. According to a statement from a spokesperson from the Hershey company, “The level of naturally occurring lead in Good & Plenty is no higher than the levels in the products made by the companies with which CEH has agreed to settle.” 

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