As Valentine’s Day approaches, many people look forward to exchanging sweetheart conversation hearts with their loved ones. These iconic candies have been a staple of Valentine’s Day celebrations for generations. However, for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, enjoying these nostalgic candies may seem risky. The big question is: are sweetheart conversation hearts gluten-free?
What Are Sweetheart Conversation Hearts?
Sweetheart conversation hearts are small, candy hearts imprinted with short messages like “Be Mine” and “Kiss Me.” They are produced by the New England Confectionery Company, or Necco, and have been around since 1866. The original Necco conversation hearts were much larger in size and printed with longer phrases and sentences. Over time, they evolved into the smaller, bite-sized hearts with short sayings that we know today.
Traditionally, the hearts came in a variety of bright pastel colors like purple, green, yellow and orange. More recently, other color varieties and flavors like “Tropical” and “Sour” have been introduced. The candies have a chalky, powdery texture and an intensely sweet flavor. Each heart is about 0.25 ounces and contains around 4.7 calories.
Ingredients in Sweetheart Conversation Hearts
So what exactly are the ingredients that give sweetheart conversation hearts their iconic look, feel and taste? The complete ingredient list, according to the manufacturer, is as follows:
- Corn syrup
The key ingredients that provide the texture are sugar and corn syrup, which make up the bulk of the candy. Gelatin is what gives the hearts their signature firm but melt-in-your-mouth consistency. Adhesives help adhere the printed sayings to the candy hearts. Finally, artificial colorings and flavorings like orange, lemon, banana and wintergreen give each heart its distinctive hue and taste.
Could Sweetheart Conversation Hearts Contain Gluten?
For anyone avoiding gluten, the presence of ingredients like sugar, cornstarch and artificial colors is not a concern. However, the gelatin could potentially be a problem.
Gelatin is a protein substance derived from the collagen in animal bones, skins and tissues. It acts as a stabilizer and thickener to give foods like candy and yogurt a chewy, gummy texture. Gelatin can be derived from pork or beef sources. However, certain types of gelatin are made using grains like wheat or barley, which do naturally contain gluten.
The gluetin in sweetheart conversation hearts comes from pigs, which means it should be free from gluten-containing grains. However, cross-contamination is still possible if the gelatin was manufactured alongside grain-derived gelatins. Small amounts could potentially get mixed in.
Risk of Cross-Contamination
In addition to the gelatin source, cross-contamination is also a concern during manufacturing and processing:
- Shared equipment: If shared equipment is used to make both gluten-containing and gluten-free products, traces of gluten could get transferred over.
- Shared facilities: Similarly, if gluten-free and gluten-containing items are made in the same facility, airborne particles or improper sanitation could lead to cross-contamination.
- Unsure staff: Manufacturing staff may not follow adequate protocols to prevent cross-contamination.
For extremely sensitive celiacs, even tiny amounts of cross-contamination can trigger symptoms. Around 10 parts per million can be enough to cause issues for those with celiac disease.
Are Sweetheart Conversation Hearts Labeled Gluten-Free?
Currently, sweetheart conversation hearts are not labeled as gluten-free by the manufacturer. The ingredient list does not identify the gelatin source, nor is there any mention of potential cross-contamination.
Necco does state that their conversation hearts are “gluten-free friendly” and that they adhere to GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) to minimize cross-contamination. However, they stop short of explicitly labeling the candy as gluten-free or guaranteeing zero traces of gluten.
Why Aren’t They Formally Gluten-Free?
There are a few reasons why Necco may not formally label these candies as gluten-free:
- Unsure about absolute zero cross-contamination: As a shared facility, Necco recognizes some tiny risk may exist.
- Concerns about legal liability: If someone did react, they could face lawsuits for guaranteeing gluten-free status.
- Not a priority consumer base: People with celiac disease are a very small subset of candy consumers.
Ultimately, the company seems to have decided that labeling the candies “gluten-free” and guaranteeing zero gluten is not worth the potential liability risks, given the very low likelihood of actual gluten exposure.
Should You Avoid Sweetheart Conversation Hearts with Celiac Disease?
Whether or not to eat sweetheart conversation hearts is a personal decision that depends on your comfort level with potential cross-contamination:
- Extremely sensitive – Avoid: If you react to traces of cross-contamination, it’s best to avoid conversation hearts to be safe.
- Moderately sensitive – Limited consumption: You may opt to have a few hearts, but minimize overall intake.
- Less sensitive – Enjoy in moderation: If you rarely react to traces, you can probably enjoy modest amounts with low risk.
No matter your sensitivity level, it’s wise not to over-indulge in sweethearts. Consuming handfuls of conversation hearts likely exposes you to higher amounts of gluten, if any is present.
You can try contacting the manufacturer for their best guidance based on your individual situation and sensitivity level.
Other Valentine’s Day Candy Options
If you decide traditional sweetheart conversation hearts are too risky, there are plenty of other festive, gluten-free candies to enjoy for Valentine’s Day, including:
- Dark chocolate truffles or bars
- Jelly beans labeled gluten-free
- Candy necklaces or lollipops marked gluten-free
- Gummy fruit slices
- Candy nonpareils
- Heart-shaped peppermints
Choosing certified gluten-free candy provides peace of mind and lets you celebrate safely. Homemade candies are another option if you want absolute control over ingredients.
Can You Make Gluten-Free Conversation Hearts?
If you still want that nostalgic conversation heart experience without the uncertainty, you can try making homemade gluten-free conversation hearts.
There are a few different recipes available using gluten-free ingredients like:
- Powdered sugar
- Agar flakes
- Honey or maple syrup
- Food coloring
- Flavor extracts
You’ll also need candy molds, either heart-shaped or custom with your own phrases. The process involves mixing the ingredients, pouring into molds, letting set, then removing from the molds after drying.
Making conversation hearts at home takes more effort but gives you total control over the ingredients. You can customize funny or romantic phrases for your loved ones too!
Gluten-Free Conversation Heart Recipes
Here are a couple homemade gluten-free conversation heart recipes to try:
- 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup light corn syrup
- Food coloring
- Flavor extracts like peppermint or lemon
- Sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let bloom 5 minutes
- Bring sugar and corn syrup to boil in saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently
- Remove syrup from heat and stir in bloomed gelatin until dissolved
- Separate into bowls and stir in food coloring and flavors
- Pour into candy molds and let set 3 hours until firm
- Remove hearts from molds and allow to dry on cooling rack until no longer sticky
Powdered Sugar Hearts
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
- 1/2 tsp maple syrup or water
- Food coloring
- Flavor extracts
- Whisk together powdered sugar and cream of tartar
- Add maple syrup and food coloring, stir to make a smooth paste
- Separate into bowls and mix in flavor extracts
- Knead each color until smooth
- Firmly pack paste into molds
- Let hearts dry for 6 hours until firm
- Unmold dried hearts and store in airtight container
Follow your preferred gluten-free conversation heart recipe, allow time for drying, and soon you’ll have custom candy hearts to share for Valentine’s Day!
Are Other Popular Valentine’s Day Candies Gluten-Free?
Beyond conversation hearts, it’s smart to check the gluten-free status of other common Valentine’s Day candies if you’re avoiding gluten. Here’s the rundown:
Most pure chocolate bars and treats are gluten-free, as chocolate liquor and cocoa butter do not contain gluten. However, some chocolate products do include gluten ingredients:
- Milk chocolate – May use barley malt as a sweetener
- Processed chocolate candy – May contain wheat starches or fillers
- Flavored chocolate – May use malt or wheat flavors
- Chocolate with inclusions – Cookies/wafers may contain gluten
Check labels to verify milk chocolate, chocolate candies, flavored chocolate, or chocolate with mix-ins are gluten free.
Some jelly beans are gluten-free, but many traditional brands like Jelly Belly are not. The issue is the ingredients used to achieve the jelly-like gummy texture:
- Flour – Wheat flour often used to achieve gummy texture
- Maltodextrin – Can be derived from wheat
Opt for jelly beans made with tapioca starch, corn starch or gelatin. Confectioner’s brand is one gluten-free option.
The dissolvable beads on candy necklaces typically use corn starch or tapioca starch, making them gluten-free. However, check labels in case the brand uses wheat-derived ingredients.
Other than conversation hearts, most candy hearts contain gluten. The base often incorporates wheat flour or wheat starch.
Brach’s is one brand that makes gluten-free candy hearts using corn starch instead.
Who Needs to Avoid Gluten?
The main groups that need to avoid gluten-containing foods like certain candies are:
People with Celiac Disease
Around 1% of people have this serious autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten exposure. The immune system attacks and damages the small intestine lining when gluten is consumed. This can cause gastrointestinal distress and malnutrition if not treated with a strict gluten-free diet.
People with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
A gluten-free diet is also required for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. While the immune response and intestinal damage is less severe, exposure to gluten can still cause abdominal pain, bloating, fatigue and other symptoms.
People with Wheat Allergies
Those with a wheat allergy must avoid wheat-based ingredients like flour. Reactions can include hives, breathing issues and even anaphylaxis. A wheat allergy is different from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
For anyone with one of these conditions, it is essential to know whether candies contain gluten and steer clear of unsafe options to prevent reactions.
Key Takeaways: Are Sweetheart Conversation Hearts Gluten-Free?
- Sweetheart conversation hearts are not certified gluten-free by the manufacturer.
- They contain gelatin, which could theoretically contain traces of gluten from grain sources.
- While the risk is low, cross-contamination in manufacturing is possible.
- Consuming small amounts is likely fine for less gluten-sensitive individuals.
- Those highly gluten-sensitive should avoid conversation hearts or contact the company.
- Homemade gluten-free conversation hearts are an alternative using safe ingredients.
- Select clearly labeled gluten-free candies if you need to avoid gluten.
While the gluten content of conversation hearts seems minimal, exercise caution if you have celiac disease or an allergy. Opt for other Valentine’s Day candies confirmed as gluten-free if you are very sensitive, or make your own gluten-free hearts. This allows you to safely enjoy Valentine’s Day treats without worry.