The cornerstone of any fun food. In ingredient lists, the word “sugar” by itself refers to sucrose, which is a carbohydrate made from two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. Sucrose is the common benchmark for sweetness: when researchers discover other compounds like artificial sweeteners, the new substances are always rated “sweeter than” or “almost as sweet as” sugar.
Mostly glucose. Raw corn starch, which is a long chain of glucose molecules chemically bound together, makes up the bulk of every kernel of corn. To make corn syrup, the corn starch is steeped in huge tanks filed with water and the enzyme amylase, a chemical found in saliva. The enzyme acts like a wrecking ball, breaking apart the starch molecule into its individual glucose units. After a few hours, the only thing that remains in the tank is corn-based glucose syrup.
In this process, sucrose and water are mixed together with a small amount of acid, such as lemon juice. The acid goes to work breaking down the chemical bonds in sucrose, releasing the individual glucose and fructose molecules into the water. The end result tastes slightly sweeter than regular sucrose, and doesn't crystallize, making it perfect for the production of candies like circus peanuts.
Guess what? Glucose again! Glucose comes in two forms, dextro (or D) and levo (of L), depending on the particular arrangements of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in the molecule. In this case, the name “dextrose” is a combination of “dextro glucose”. Are you keeping track of all the different forms of glucose? Your pancreas, the organ that produces the insulin needed to regulate your blood sugar, certainly is.
Circus peanuts have a foamy texture similar to polyurethane roofing insulation. This comes from judicious use of gelatin to hold all the whipped sugar together.
Natural and Artificial Flavors
It is not that easy to create an artificial peanut flavor, so for reasons lost in the mists of history, the original manufacturers of circus peanuts decided on banana. Banana flavor is very easy to simulate with amyl acetate, which can be distilled from real banana oil, or can be made in a lab by mixing vinegar, amyl alcohol, and sulfuric acid in just the right way.
FDC Yellow #5
AKA Tartrazine. A lemon yellow dye, it is regarded as safe by the FDA. The British, however, think differently; their Food Standards Agency says it is highly allergenic to some sensitive asthmatics, and can cause migraine, blurred vision, itching, rhinitis and purple skin patches. They do not recommend its use by children.
The EU recommends this dye, which is made from coal tar, be phased out as well, since it has been associated with hyperactivity in children. While Yellow #6 is not a carcinogen, one of its co-products – Sudan I – very much is, and is often found as a contaminant in batches of Yellow #6.
The red in red pistachio nut shells. In the body, it behaves like estrogen, possibly leading to an increase in breast tumors, and definitely leading to decreased sperm production in mice. In a curious reversal, US FDA recommends this dye be discontinued, while the European Union considers it OK to use.