Why Are These Gummy Bears Making People So Sick?

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rexusa_1414627aPhoto: Food and Drink/REX USA.
It's hard to resist a sugar-free promise when it comes to candy, especially if the taste is anywhere near the original. But, as the prolific reviews for Haribo's Sugarless Gummy Bears on Amazon can attest, taste is not everything. In fact, taste isn't really anything when the colorful candies have apparently wreaked havoc on the digestive systems of just about everyone who ever penned a review on the site. A select little population, we grant you, but that's a lot to say about a food mostly reserved for movies, road trips, and moments of weakness.

Yet, as Buzzfeed points out, the candy's Amazon product page has turned into the world's most disgusting creative-writing contest, a place where reviewers try to one-up each other with tales of 24-hour woe. So, we can't help but wonder what's causing, as one Amazon user put it, this "gastrointestinal Armageddon."

Lycasin is the ingredient here bringing the artificial sweetness — it's also called hydrogenated glucose syrup, maltitol, and often, in larger quantities, regret. Lycasin is actually a brand name for a starch-based sweetener made by French company Roquette — analogous to how Advil is the brand name for ibuprofen. Roquette is, according to its website, "one of the world's most advanced producers of starch and starch derivatives." Roquette says Lycasin is made from the "hydrogenation of high maltose glucose syrups" and is an ideal substitute for sweets. And, in a way, it is.

The Calorie Control Council says that maltitol has 90% of sugar's sweetness but fewer calories (2.1 per gram to sugar's four). It does an excellent job of camouflaging itself as straight-up sucrose (table sugar) while not promoting tooth decay or causing blood glucose and insulin levels to spike — a win for diabetics and sugar shunners alike. But, the thing that keeps these all-important levels even-keeled is also what can make digestive systems go woah: Maltitol is not easily digested.

As a sugar alcohol, maltitol is not completely absorbed by the body, so a portion of it inevitably ends up in the intestines. According to WebMD, people with irritable bowel syndrome or other intestinal sensitivities are more at risk for its notorious effects. But, even if you have neither, the American Dietetic Association warns against eating more than 20 grams at a time. However, it's hard to keep track of how much you're consuming when Haribo's nutrition info doesn't even specify how much Lycasin/maltitol/sugar alcohol is in a serving. And, of course, with the oversized bags available, it's all too easy to down a pound in a highway-hypnosis-like binge.

Now, the product's Amazon page does offer a "safety warning," that says "Consumption of some sugar-free candies may cause stomach discomfort and/or a laxative effect. Individual tolerance will vary. If this is the first time you’ve tried these candies, we recommend beginning with one-fourth of a serving size or less." And, while that could be helpful — if you actually read it — any nonperishable food that comes with an explicit safety warning should make consumers a bit wary. So far, there's been no word from Haribo on the Amazon controversy, but even if they recall these gummys, we'll always have the reviews.