- From gelatin to carmine, Nerds contain hidden ingredients that some vegans avoid.
- The laundry list of food color additives in Nerds products is a health concern for some consumers.
- Gummy Clusters and other Nerds products may contain cancer-causing ingredients, according to a physician and a nutritionist who spoke with Green Matters.
When Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka blissfully sang of paradise, flanked by candy trees and a chocolate river, not even in his wildest imagination could he have envisioned Nerds at the epicenter of controversy. Today, health-conscious consumers cautiously search to discover if their favorite sweets are vegan, while TikTokers wonder aloud if Nerds Gummy Clusters cause cancer.
While shopping for vegan and ethically-sourced chocolate is easier now than in the past, navigating the labyrinthine ingredient lists of certain candies to determine if they're vegan-friendly can be a chore unto itself.
Are Nerds Gummy Clusters bad for you?
Overall, yes, Nerds Gummy Clusters are pretty bad for you, especially if consumed regularly.
Per the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), Gummy Clusters also contain seven of the EWG's top food additives of concern — and two experts we spoke with agree that no one should be eating Nerds Gummy Clusters frequently.
"If a client came to me and said they were eating these regularly, I would lay out all the facts for them," Taylor DeBoer, M.S., Integrative Nutritionist and Gut Health & Chronic Illness Specialist, tells Green Matters via email. "There are no redeeming health qualities to Nerds Gummy Clusters. They may be wrapped in a cute, brightly colored and cheerful package, but inside there's more toxins than ever needs to be in our body."
According to Dr. Shikha Jain, M.D., a board-certified hematology and oncology physician, a healthy approach for those who enjoy Nerds is to balance the information we consume about food just as responsibly as we balance our diets.
"I recommend a balanced approach to the information you see on the Internet," Dr. Jain tells Green Matters by phone.
"When you go down the rabbit hole of reading all of the possible things that can cause health problems, it can become overwhelming and scary. As we read these things, we need to realize that if you’re eating candy in moderation, you’re minimizing your risk," she continues. "Read the labels of the food you’re eating, and incorporate fresh foods and those that aren't highly processed to maintain a balanced, healthy diet."
Do Nerd Gummy Clusters cause cancer?
The question of whether Nerds Gummy Clusters will give you cancer has attracted nearly 50 million views and counting on TikTok. The recent surge in interest likely comes from the laundry list of sugars and the colorants added to the product to produce its trademark look.
"The first ingredient in Nerds is dextrose, which is a lab-made sugar derived from corn or wheat," DeBoer says. "Both corn and wheat are two crops that are heavily sprayed with glyphosate." Also known as Roundup, glyphosate is a well-known carcinogen, and the subject of many lawsuits.
Over the last several years, groups have petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to remove red No. 3 and other food color dyes from the list of color additives permitted for use in food and other goods. Issues such as neurobehavioral problems in some children, as well as long-term animal studies revealing that red No. 3 causes adenomas and carcinomas, have been cited by the Center for Science in the Public Interest as reasons to ban the colorant. Although California became the first state to sign a bill banning red No. 3 into law, the ban won't be implemented until 2027.
According to Dr. Jain, eating a candy in moderation won't cause cancer by itself, though everyday consumption of highly processed foods may lead to many health problems, including, potentially, cancer.
"A lot of people think cancer is fed by sugar, which is not how cancer works. That being said, there are some things that can increase your risk of developing cancer, such as processed foods eaten in excess," she explains. "Eating a candy occasionally would not solely increase your risk for cancer. Eaten every single day in large quantities, candy can increase your risk of a lot of health problems, which is why we recommend a balanced, healthy diet that incorporates foods that aren’t highly processed."
Are Nerds vegan?
Although Nerds are known for their bright, eye-catching rainbow colors, the matter of “are Nerds vegan?” has some gray areas. By some vegans’ definitions, the starting answer is: “it depends.”
Some, like peta2, deem the candy "accidentally vegan" and safe for vegans to consume. There’s also the enigma of ambiguous terms like "natural flavors" and "artificial flavors" that roam the ingredient lists of all Nerds products like a candy-coated disguise.
Further complicating the question if Nerds are vegan is that every Nerds product contains various forms of sugar. Per PETA, because the process of refining sugar in the U.S. often requires the use of bone char — the literal remains of burned animal bones — some vegans draw the line here.
In the imperfect world in which we live, many, like World of Vegan, maintain that perfection is impossible while trying to operate within the confines of our current system. To wit: unless a nutrition label specifically includes "organic" sugar, it is impossible to ascertain if the sugar was produced in a vegan manner.
The big red flag that may aid in your decision is subtly being waved among a confusing list of added colors. From Blue 1 Lake to Red 40 to "carmine" and other additives, it can be overwhelming to interpret Nerds ingredients. However, to produce carmine, the crushed shells of female cochineal insects are boiled in an ammonia solution and then treated to produce a red color all-too-familiar in many candies and other products, per ScienceDirect.
So overall, some do consider Nerds to be vegan, while other vegans may choose to abstain from eating Nerds due to murky additives on the ingredients label.
However, Nerds Gummy Clusters are not vegan since they contain gelatin, an ingredient made from animal body parts.
Are Nerds gluten-free?
Nerds do not contain any wheat or gluten ingredients; however, they are not certified gluten-free.
Because the manufacturing process of Nerds and their sibling products involves production in the same factory – and, potentially, on the same line of equipment – as wheat products, those who are allergic to gluten would be advised to abstain from Nerds.
And because Nerds Gummy Clusters are produced in a facility that also manufactures wheat, it’s best to avoid them if you are allergic to gluten.