Haw flakes are a traditional Chinese candy (sahn sah ban, shānzhābǐng} made from the mashed fruit of the Chinese Hawthorn, called “haws.” Haws are a red fruit with a tangy sweet taste which are not often used in the U.S. but have been used in Britain to make jellies and homemade wine. In China, the fruits of the species Crataegus pinnatifida, which look like small crabapples, are used to make many kinds of foods and beverages, including jams, jellies, juices, and alcoholic beverages. It is claimed on various websites that haw flakes are banned by the FDA.
Haw flakes, the candy made from haws, are a particular favorite of Chinese children. The candies are cut into very thin coin-like wafers and sold in tubes decorated like Chinese fireworks. Although they are firm, when eaten they soften and become very chewy. The red color of the candies, is not always due to the color of the fruit, however.
This hawthorn candy is not the only confection the fruit is used for. Hawthorn fruit is also used in a traditional treat called tanghulu, where the fruits are coated in a hard sugar syrup.
Haw Flakes Seized by FDA in the Past
Although haw flakes can now be purchased, imports of the products have, in the past, been seized by the Food and Drug Administration for containing illegal and/or undeclared colors. In 2011, for example, haw flakes candy from Joangmen Xinhui Parksun Food, Co. Ltd. was seized for containing Ponceau 4R (Acid Red 18, Brilliant Scarlet, Cochineal Red A, and many other synonyms). Ponceau 4R is a synthetic substitute for cochineal extract, or carmine the infamous red color extracted from beetles. Read read more about chochineal as well as much more in-depth information on food colors.
Although cochineal is subject to much controversy for its use as a “strawberry” coloring in the U.S., it is permitted for use in foods. Its synthetic equivalent, an azo die, however, has not been approved for use in the U.S.
It should be noted, however, that haw flakes are but one of such products that have been seized. Other candies have been held for undeclared colors that are not actually unapproved. These include but are not limited to haw flakes with FD&C Red #40, papaya candy with FD&C Yellow #6, melon candies (Life Savers, Etc.) with FD&C Blue #1; and jellied candies with FD&C Blue #1 and Yellow #6. Ponceau 4R has also been found in a strawberry filling.
The rumor that haw flakes were, are still are, “banned by the FDA,” as far as I can tell, are inaccurate. The FDA may seize imported products for various reasons, but seizing a product does not mean that a certain product has been officially banned from being imported into the U.S. Although Ponceau 4R is used in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Although it is unapproved in the U.S. (not banned, mind you), it is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, and Switzerland.
If you were to find a package of haw flakes candy at an Asian market or order them online, it is unlikely the problem would be any red food coloring used! The main problem would be that these candies are almost unknown in the U.S. and very few packages are sold, so it is possible that any product you buy is old stock and stale. Since these candies are brought over on cargo ships, they may have been subject to extreme conditions, such as heat, causing them to melt together, etc. Haw flakes are, as well, a very inexpensive candy. When purchased at Asian markets, they may be as low as 50 cents a packet, whereas online the price will tend to be quite inflated.
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