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As a kid, no plastic trick-or-treat Jack-o-Lantern or trip to the movies was ever complete without a bag of Skittles. These fruity, chewy, colorful candies have satisfied the world’s craving for a non-chocolate candy for decades, but are Skittles vegan? And if they are, should you even be eating them? Let’s find out!

What could make Skittles not vegan?

Skittles are a particularly perplexing candy for many vegans, whether you’re brand-new to the plant-based game or a seasoned pro. Much of this confusion is rooted in changes to the Skittles formula over time, so let’s walk through those changes and figure out once and for all what Skittles’ current formula means for vegans.

The original formula for Skittles included gelatin (see my post on vegan jello for more info on gelatin), which of course is made by boiling the bones, cartilage, and skin of animals — most often cows, pigs, or fish. This made Skittles unsuitable for vegans, vegetarians, and those keeping kosher up until 2009 when the nefarious ingredient was removed. However, the removal of gelatin only made Skittles vegan within the U.S.

Across the pond in the U.K., where Skittles originated, the presence of a purposefully ambiguously named ingredient kept this rainbow-colored candy out of the savviest of vegans’ mouths: E120. While this additive seems innocuous, it’s actually a food industry code for carmine. That’s right — E120 is just one of several names for the red dye extracted from crushed female cochineal insects, making it decisively not vegan.

Thankfully, this bug-based ingredient was removed from U.K. Skittles in 2015, but up until then, it’s likely that many vegans may have unknowingly consumed Skittles containing carmine. To help you avoid making similar mistakes, let’s take a moment to decode this additive.

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Carmine: bug juice by any other name is just as gross

glass of water with red carmine coloring through it

Carmine is a popular ingredient in many foods, candies, and cosmetics that call for a reddish hue, but it’s safe to presume that its popularity is due at least partly to the ambiguity of its name. After all, the word “carmine” doesn’t reveal exactly what this stuff is — red beetle juice.

That is why the food industry has developed several names for this bug extract, making it easier to sneak it into consumers’ products without their realizing exactly what they’re eating. Some of the other aliases used for this bug-based dye are Cochineal Extract (which, to be fair, is pretty straightforward), Crimson Lake, Natural Red 4, C.I. 75470, Carminic Acid, and the previously mentioned E120.

So, if you see any of these names hiding in an ingredient label, steer clear.

What about Skittles’ other flavors? Are they vegan?

pack of sour skittles against a wooden backdrop

Skittles’ decades of success and current title as America’s favorite non-chocolate candy have led to the creation of many different flavor variations over the years. What about these? Are Sour Skittles vegan? What about Tropical Skittles, or the recently released Sweet Heat Skittles? You can rest assured that none of these other varieties have animal ingredients listed, making them technically vegan. However, the lack of animal ingredients doesn’t mean that this fruity candy is exactly wholesome.

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A closer look at Skittles’ other ingredients

All Skittles may now be free of gelatin, carmine, and other obvious animal-based additives, but some of its remaining ingredients are questionable, namely natural flavors, palm oil, and artificial colors. Let’s dissect these ingredients so you can decide for yourself if you’re comfortable consuming them.

How “natural” are Skittles’ natural flavors?

Natural flavors, another frustratingly vague name that can mean just about anything, are not inherently vegan or non-vegan. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, “natural flavors” may be derived from plant sources, animal sources, or both, so unless the label states that the flavors are vegan, there is still a chance that they may contain animal-derived ingredients.

 

This isn’t likely in the case of Skittles because their ingredients list is concluded with “Suitable for vegetarians,” but if you feel that you can’t be too careful, you may not want to “taste the rainbow.”

 

What about palm oil?

Palm oil is one of those ubiquitous ingredients that can seem nearly impossible to avoid, appearing in everything from margarine to laundry detergent . Although this ingredient is technically plant-based, its devastating environmental impact has caused it to be blacklisted by many ethical vegans.

 

For a more in-depth look at how palm oil affects our planet, check out the video below:

 

 

If you wish to avoid an ingredient that’s responsible for the habitat loss of many endangered species, Skittles may not be the sweet for you.

 

Artificial colors: a rainbow of toxins and cruelty

Finally, there is the issue of artificial colors. While these are no longer used in U.K. Skittles, they are still in U.S. Skittles, and they pose an ethical dilemma for vegans because of their involvement with animal testing.

 

Artificial colors are used to make foods more vibrant, colorful, and appealing to consumers, but they’ve long been scrutinized for their possible negative impacts on human health. While the FDA maintains that these dyes are safe to consume, some studies and empirical evidence have indicated that these dyes may exacerbate issues with hyperactivity in children. Other studies have suggested that these artificial colors may even be carcinogenic. Sadly, they are continually tested on animals in order to figure out just how harmful they may be to humans.

 

For example, Red 40, one of the colors used in Skittles, has been used in many experiments involving animal models to study its effects. In one such study, dogs and rats were treated with Red 40 and then “sacrificed” (i.e., euthanized) so that their intestines could be examined.

 

If you’ve decided to avoid consuming artificial colors as much as humanly possible (which is difficult in the U.S. because the darn things are in everything), you may not have to miss out on Skittles and certain other candies for much longer. That’s because Skittles’ parent company, Mars, Inc., announced in 2016 that it would remove artificial colors from all of its products over the course of five years, meaning that you could soon be enjoying Skittles colored with beets and carrots instead of harmful synthetic dyes.

Speaking of Mars, Inc., I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the issues that some vegans have with this company.

What’s so bad about Mars, Inc.?

box of skittles surrounded by the fruit candy

Mars, Inc. probably didn’t garner much attention from most vegans and animal lovers until People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched a campaign against the company, claiming that they were conducting cruel and unnecessary experiments on animals. On their campaign website, MarsCandyKills.com, PETA details a series of gruesome tests that Mars reportedly conducted and/or funded on mice, rats, rabbits, and guinea pigs.

While it is unclear whether any of these experiments are continuing in 2018, Mars, Inc.’s official statement regarding animal testing may give you all the information you need. While the company insists that it tries to avoid using animal models whenever possible, they state that they “may sponsor a limited number of studies involving rats, mice, fish and other aquatic species” when introducing a “new raw material that has not been used in foods before.”

If you decide that you’d rather not support Mars, you may find yourself avoiding more than just Skittles. In addition to owning Wrigley’s, Mars also owns several recognizable brands of pet food, including Iams, Pedigree, Nutro, Eukanuba, Temptations, Whiskas, and Royal Canin. If you’re feeding any of these to your pet, you may want to consider cruelty-free alternatives for your cat or dog (check out our best vegan dog food article for more info).

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What are the alternatives to Skittles?

At this point, you may decide that satisfying your sweet tooth isn’t worth supporting a company that still tests on animals or consuming artificial dyes that may be damaging your health. So, what are some vegan and cruelty-free alternatives to Skittles?

The online environmental magazine Selva Beat has provided a fairly extensive list of vegan, palm oil-free candies that can be passed out at Halloween or enjoyed any time of the year. Many of the candies listed happen to be chocolate-based, but if you’re looking for something fruity like Skittles, there are still plenty of naturally fruit-flavored goodies to savor, like Surf Sweets Organic Fruity Bears.

The final word: are Skittles vegan or not?

Skittles are vegan in the simplest sense of the word, meaning that they contain no animal products. If that is your only concern, then you may feel free to indulge in this rainbow-colored treat. However, if you have an issue with potentially toxic dyes, environmentally destructive ingredients, or a parent company that still tests on animals, you may not feel comfortable purchasing Skittles, regardless of their supposed vegan-ness.

What’s your take on Skittles? Let us know in the comments below!

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