Jelly Beans Are Delicious—and They're Made With Insect Secretions

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by James Hunt

If you've ever wondered what the ingredient is that makes jelly beans so hard and shiny, you may wish you had never asked that question at all. So let's not beat around the bush: Jelly beans are shiny because they're coated in shellac, which is a resin that's secreted by the female lac bug (laccifer lacca) after it drinks the sap of trees.

Native to the forests of Thailand and India, the lac bug deposits shellac onto the twigs and branches of trees, which is then harvested and processed into flakes. After being dissolved in ethanol, the liquid shellac can be sprayed on everything from food products to fingernails to hardwood floors to create a shiny appearance on the exterior.

These days, many of the historical uses of shellac—it was once used as electrical insulation and to make records before the 1950s—have actually been replaced by vinyl-based resins. As a natural resin, shellac remains popular for use in food. It's even used as a replacement for natural apple wax, which is removed during cleaning.

Unfortunately, if you're a vegetarian or vegan, this might be bad news, as shellac is an animal byproduct. Shellac is also an ingredient in confectioner's glaze and some other edible glazes, and may be listed as an additive using the number E904. So if your plan is to avoid shellac entirely, it may prove difficult, but it's not impossible. As long as you can resist the taste of jelly beans. Happy Jelly Bean Day?!