Anyone who has successfully raised a child to adulthood knows that what our little ones put in their mouths can be a constant battle of wills. As babies and toddlers, young humans like to explore the world orally, making sense of the textures and shapes of new objects by putting them in their mouths. And this is not a problem when the object before them is a fistful of cornflakes or Cheerios, but a whole other matter if an action figure makes its way into the opening to the alimentary canal. And although it can be annoying or embarrassing when your newly kleptomaniac toddler munches on unpaid candy at the checkout line (Oops, guess we’ll be taking one of those too…), other objects – lead paint chips, for example – can be downright dangerous. But what happens when otherwise benign objects become contaminated with food-borne pathogens? Or worse: what happens when the candy your toddler screams for is actually laced with lead?
Hispanic candies such as Pelucas, Muecas, Gusano, or Lucas Mexican Candy with its chili-mango kick remain popular in Mexican-American communities, their taste profiles decidedly different from the cloyingly sweet sensation of the average Snickers bar or Tootsie Roll. But the presence of lead in some of these products is a source of major concern. Let’s take a moment to back up and look briefly at the situation regarding lead as a potent and multi-faced contaminant.
One of the best known sources of lead contamination in the environment is very close to home. In fact, it is our home. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), residential houses built before 1978 have an increased chance of containing lead-based paint, ranging from a 24% increase in those built between 1960 and 1977 and a whopping 87% increase in those constructed prior to 1940.(1) And although banned on a federal level in 1978, lead paint persists under layers of newer paint, becoming exposed over time due to peeling, chipping, or other deterioration of safer top layers.
But assuming we can keep our children from ingesting lead paint chips, they should be pretty safe from lead poisoning, right? Not according to data that recently emerged far from the Wolverine State. According to an article published by the University of San Francisco in 2017, the California Department of Public Health issued more alerts for lead in candy than for salmonella, E. coli, or botulism combined.(2) When testing for this heavy metal began in 2006 just 22% of health alerts involved lead, but once a surveillance program was mandated to warn clinicians of the dangers of exposure to toxins in food a full 42% of contamination alerts were found to be lead-related. The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, an online journal of news and research from the National Institutes of Health, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and lead author Margaret A. Handley sought to expose the extent to which food has overtaken lead in paint as a source of grave concern for children’s health. Handley, a professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), noted that upwards of 10,000 children under the age of 6 are poisoned by lead annually.(3) And that’s just the statistics for the state of California. And while the majority of the efforts to protect minors from heavy metal toxicity revolve around lead in gasoline, contaminated soil, and the areas already outlined, candy is also now coming under the regulatory spotlight.
Imported candy, to be specific. Of the 164 health alerts issued for contaminated food items, 60 were related to lead, of which the majority were sourced in Mexico. Additional countries of origin were seen to be China and India, in addition to Taiwan and a handful of nation states within the European Union. The permissible lead content in candy items for children was lowered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to 0.10 parts per million (ppm) in reaction to a cluster of reports involving cases of toxicity in California, from the southern Orange county to Monterey to Stanislaus county in the Central Valley. In these cases, some food items tested as high as a shocking 21,000 ppm and contributed to the passing in 2006 of legislation mandating increased surveillance and regulation of imported candy.(4)
So perhaps it is better to avoid these kinds of candies and stick with the tried and true names like Skittles and Starburst? But in comparison with the fiery Mexican candies with their sweet-sour-spicy kick, surely the traditional orange and strawberry chews are outmoded? Not so fast! In a bold move, Mars Wrigley Confectionary – the manufacturing conglomerate behind such beloved food items as M&Ms, Twix, Snickers, and Skittles – has recently released a new line of checkout line impulse purchases with a spicy-sweet taste adventure. Skittles Sweet Heat and Starburst Sweet Heat are soon to be joined by Hot & Spicy Cinnamon Oreos and Sour Patch Kids Fire to offer a flavor experience that testers described as a sweet heat that ‘sneaks up on you.’(5) The company, which recently opened a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility near in Yorkville, IL, uses robotic automation combined with worker-led cGMPs to produce the ‘Blazin’ Mango,’ ‘Sizzlin’ Strawberry,’ and other fiery flavors.
At Mars, we also believe food safety is fundamental to food security – which is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization as when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food.’(6) Moreover, perhaps because of its position as a transnational corporation with a global reach, Mars Wrigley is uniquely positioned to forge partnerships with governments, alliances, universities, and the World Food Programme, in addition to generating cutting edge research at its Global Food Safety Center based in Huariou, China. The GFSC conducts research specifically into the detection and identification of food-borne pathogens, mycotoxin management, authenticity on sourcing raw materials (supply chain management), and operational food safety management. It aims to create the necessary data to conduct what it calls ‘pre-competitive food safety research and training.’(7) In fact, the Center has seen success in its year-long global training program which coaches food safety representatives on best practices in quantitative food safety risk analysis, mapping out tools and techniques for communicating risk, with future efforts intended to expand the focus to also include salmonella risk identification and elimination.
So in terms of the tried and true Mars products, safety seems to be the name of the game. But what of the lesser known lines that enjoy regional popularity but fly under the general consumer radar? What, specifically, of products such as Lucas Mexican Candy, produced south of the border by Mars Candies? The Mexican Candy is one of a line of whimsical – some say ‘bizarre’ – foods sporting the iconic branding of a duck wearing sunglasses.(8) Found in Hispanic grocery stores and dulcerias (candy stores) globally, Lucas Mexican Candy has been reported to cause adverse health effects in children who enjoy ingesting it nasally – snorting the powder, which contains not only 900mg of sodium and 10 grams of sugar but also citric acid and lead. Given that the short-term side effects can include damage to the nasal linings, hyperactivity, nausea, vomiting, and headache, mimicking the drug-snorting habits of those way beyond their years is arguably a way to acclimate a child to the side effects of a later move from candy to drugs. Scarely the intention, one assumes, of the Mars Wrigley food safety mission.
The bottom line when it comes to foodborne pathogens and lead poisoning is that no measure aimed at protecting our children can ever be regarded as too much. The health effects of heavy metal toxicity are well described in the medical literature and it is entirely our responsibility to ensure that the next generation grows up free of such contamination. The only place in which candy is completely pathogen- and contaminant-free and where we can release our responsibility and oversight in terms of our children’s access to these items is that iconic candy facility of our own childhood imaginations – Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. And even there, we seem to recall that Augustus Gloop created contamination issues of his very own…
In California, consumers have broad access to imported candies which challenge the ‘traditional’ taste paradigm. Is this true of your state? Do you delight in the concept of hot and spicy candy? Or are you more of a Tootsie Roll traditionalist? We’d love to know your thoughts…