Don’t play games with buckeyes made with peanut butter and chocolate

Homemade candies may be a family tradition, but make sure that all the ingredients are edible.

Buckeye balls.
Photo: Flickr/Mark Pascale.

Many Michiganders are Buckeye fans; that is, the traditional homemade candy in the Midwest called the Buckeye ball. After all, what's better than a recipe that requires no cooking and only a few familiar ingredients?

For those that do not know what a Buckeye ball is, it is a confection or candy that imitates the color and shape of Buckeye nuts, from the Buckeye tree, Aesculus species, and sometimes called the horse chestnut. Buckeye balls are edible, but buckeye nuts are NOT edible.

Buckeye ball ingredients typically include peanut butter, vanilla extract, powdered or confectioners’ sugar and butter. These ingredients are combined and then rolled into bite-size balls. Many recipes, and in fact, the original recipe instructions call for melted paraffin wax, also known as canning wax to be melted with the chocolate. The peanut butter ball is dipped into the melted chocolate coating, which creates the “eye.”

If one of the “ingredients” is canning wax or paraffin, however, the recipe needs to be updated. We’re not talking about the calories that make this candy a hazard, but rather the paraffin that can cause health problems.

MSU Extension recommends that only food-grade ingredients should be consumed. Medline Plus, a part of the National Library of Medicine, warns that consuming large amounts of wax can create an intestinal obstruction that could require medical attention.

The likely reason why paraffin is sometimes used as an ingredient is to keep the chocolate from melting. Once the chocolate cools, the wax hardens, providing strength to the chocolate. But there’s a problem with this. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, paraffin is a refined petroleum wax and is not approved as an additive; rather it is only to have contact with the surface of food, such as wax paper, waxed cardboard, and protective wax covering for produce.

The following are alternatives to use as an ingredient that is approved by the FDA:

  • Beeswax: Chewing gum, confections, frostings and candy.
  • Carnauba wax: Chewing gum, confections and frostings and soft candy.
  • Candelilla wax: Chewing gum and hard candy.

Other options are to use confectionary coatings, sometimes called compound chocolate, which is not chocolate, but rather a sweet, meltable coating. A little more skill and practice is needed to “temper” chocolate. Couverture chocolate, which is a high-quality chocolate with a high amount of cocoa butter, is often used. If “tempered” correctly, the chocolate will have a good snap and shine. Another food-safe option is to refrigerate the candy until it is ready to serve, keeping the chocolate firm.

Please note that using canning wax to seal jars is dangerous because it allows mold formation, which can lead to the development of harmful mycotoxins.

This holiday season, take a moment to revise your traditional recipes and make them into recipes that are “updated for safety.” For more information on keeping food safe, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website. MSU Extension provides many resources, including fact sheets, webinars, trainings and answers from food safety experts for the best practices to prevent foodborne illness.

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