M & M’s Deconstructed

If you’ve visited New York’s Times Square lately, you may have encountered M&M’s World. It’s a three floor temple celebrating all things small, round, chocolaty, and brightly colored.

The brand, owned by Mars, has been around since the early 1940′s and has become part of our childhood and popular culture.

But what exactly are M&M’s made of?

What you need to know:

M&M’s are basically chocolate pellets covered with a candy outer shell. The process for coating the chocolate was once quite challenging and even patented, but now it is very simple and commonplace.

Don’t expect much nutritionally from candy. Lots of sugar. Lots of saturated fat (30% of the daily max). But hey, it’s candy. A single serving bag weighs almost 2 ounces and has 240 calories. Definitely not a daily treat.

According to the packaging, “M&M’s Chocolate Candies are made of the finest ingredients. This product should reach you in excellent condition.” Here is the “finest” ingredient list:

Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Chocolate, Skim Milk, Cocoa Butter, Lactose, Milkfat, Soy Lecithin, Salt, Artificial Flavors), Sugar, Cornstarch, Less than 1% Corn Syrup, Dextrin, Coloring (Includes Blue 1 Lake, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake, Blue 2), Gum Acacia.

We can’t vouch for “finest”, but let’s just say that the ingredient list is, for the most part, what you’ll find in many other chocolates.

What really concerns us is the use of artificial coloring. A lot of artificial colorings, as you can see in the list above. Each chocolate button is coated with one of 6 colors – red, green, yellow, orange, blue, and brown. All, without exception, are artificial dyes.

By the way, the “lake” notation of some colors means that they are used in liquid form, not powder.

So what is the problem with artificial colors?

  • Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have long been known to cause allergic reactions in some people.
  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that dyes cause hyperactivity in children.
  • Tests on lab animals of Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 showed signs of causing cancer.
  • Yellow 5 also caused mutations, an indication of possible carcinogenicity, in six of 11 tests.
  • Studies show that the three most-widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are tainted with low levels of cancer-causing compounds, including benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl in Yellow 5.

What to do at the supermarket:

Opt for chocolate candies that are not colored with artificial dyes.

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  • Miranda Rice

    Many of these colors are banned in Europe – do you know which ones and for what reason? I would be interested to know, thank you.

    • kelli

      Red candies were eliminated in 1976[10] due to health concerns over the dye amaranth (FD&C Red #2), which was a suspected carcinogen,
      and were replaced with orange-colored candies. This was done despite
      the fact that M&M’s did not contain the dye; the action was purely
      to satisfy worried consumers. Red candies were reintroduced later, but
      they also kept the orange colored M&M’s. They currently contain Allura Red AC (FD&C Red #40, E129).

      In Europe, Allura Red AC is not recommended for consumption by
      children. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany,
      Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and Norway.[11] Instead, Cochineal (E120) is used in the red shells.

      - From Wikipedia

  • http://www.spoonfedblog.net Christina @ Spoonfed

    And it’s not just M&M’s, of course. Food dyes are in everything, including items that appear white or “natural.” I blogged about this last week: http://spoonfedblog.net/2011/01/22/the-color-of-trouble/. The discussion in the comments is still going strong, covering everything from children’s behavior to sports drinks to natural dye alternatives. I also link to various studies and resources.

    Miranda, an earlier Spoonfed post went into detail about food dyes in Europe: http://spoonfedblog.net/2010/04/02/dyeing-to-know-easter-egg-science-lesson/

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Editorial Staff

      @Christina thanks for sharing – Spoonfed looks like a great blog!

  • http://Www.littlelocavores.blogspot.com Melissa Graham

    A good friend sends my son each year an Easter basket with the UK equivalent of M&Ms. I forget exactly the ingredients used to color the candy coating, but they’re all natural. Wish we could get them here.

    • kayla

      M&Ms don’t contain natural colours….im from uk and I see them every time im in a shop plus my mother has a bag right now, and I 100 percent know they are all artificial colours exceot the brown one which uses cocoa for the shell!!!!

  • Lauren

    Food dyes are water soluble and come in liquid, powders or sprays. Lakes are salts of dyes to make them fat dispersible for use in applications where water soluble dyes would streak or clump because of fat content.

  • Marcia

    Instead of M&Ms, buy Sunspire Sundrops. They look the same but without the artificial dyes. They come in plain or peanut. If you are a member of the Feingold Association, you know that you can find dye-free substitutions for most anything: http://www.feingold.org

  • http://overachiverunderachiever.com kim

    what if you only eat the brown ones? ;)

  • http://foodtrainers.blogspot.com Lauren Slayton

    I like the sunspire brand like Marcia above, maybe good to give people an alternative so they can make the change? Ha! Now I’m writing your blog. I feel people don’t know enough about this or sweeteners for that matter. I still field questions every day. I did a 10 foods you think are health post, wish I had included something with dyes.

  • Bill M

    M&M’s now have a larger package labled for sharing. I wontder how often they actual get shared?

  • Jen K

    Smarties are a UK equivalent which have quite recently cut out all artificialy colours from their sweets.

  • Ari W

    Unreal brand candies are all naturally made and colored, and they’re quite delicious! Their “M&Ms” are very yummy, I recently tried them and they’re similar (but not exactly alike) to the giant company candies. I recommend buying Unreal, they’re really… well, unreal~

  • Vicki

    Smarties in Canada are at least naturally coloured.

  • KittenSkeff

    Smarties are the UK version of m &m’s. they are only colored with fruit and veggie natural dye