1. Evil or Just Misunderstood?
It all started with the Jelly Bean Incident.
My daughter was three years old, and she loved jelly beans. A baby fistful of the brightly colored morsels was just about the biggest prize she could imagine, and at one tiny gram of sugar per bean, it seemed to me—her caring, reasonably attentive mother—to be a pretty harmless treat. So it was with the best of intentions that we decided one day to bring some jelly beans to share for her playdate at Noah’s house.
Noah’s mom, Laura, stocked their pantry with normal kid stuff—Popsicles and juice boxes and Teddy Grahams—so I didn’t think much about offering the jelly beans. But Laura seemed taken aback: “Well, he’s never really had that before … I suppose it couldn’t hurt.”
Couldn’t hurt? Could she really believe I was harming my child, and threatening to harm hers, by holding out a few tiny pieces of candy? But greater condemnation was to follow. Her husband, Gary, had been listening to the exchange and with a dark glare in my direction he hissed at Laura, “Oh, so I guess you’ll start giving him crack now too?”
He might as well have shouted in my face, “Bad mother!” I was stunned—it was just a few jelly beans, after all.
I had already promised my daughter she could have some candy—and to be honest, I like jelly beans too—so we snuck out to the patio to enjoy our illicit treat. As we ate, though, I couldn’t help but think, What if I’m wrong? Candy is certainly not a “healthy” snack. But there I was, letting my three-year-old eat the jelly beans, encouraging her, even. My own mother wouldn’t have let me have them, that’s for sure—my childhood home was a no-candy zone. Maybe I was a bad mother.
This moment was when I first started paying attention to candy, and especially to the ways people talk about eating or not eating it. Just about everyone agrees that candy is a “junk food” devoid of real nutrition, a source of “empty calories” that ruin your appetite for better things like apples and chicken. But empty calories alone couldn’t account for a reaction like Gary’s, which made it seem like it was just a skip and a hop from the innocence of Pixy Stix to the dangerous and criminal world of street junkies.
And it isn’t just Gary who sees candy as some kind of juvenile vice. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that a lot of stories out there suggested disturbing connections between candy and controlled substances. In 2009, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that middle school kids were freaking out their parents by inhaling and snorting the dust from Smarties candies; YouTube “how to” videos were all the rage for a few months.1 Even more worrisome were exposés in 2010 on Detroit television stations about proto-alcoholic teens sneaking “drunken gummy bears” into homerooms and movie theaters.2 And it can’t be an accident that “rock” can be either candy or crack; “candy” was used as a euphemism for cocaine as early as 1931.3 In the spring of 2012, actor Bryan Cranston offered talk-show host David Letterman a taste of “blue meth,” the superpotent methamphetamine that drives the action in the AMC hit drama Breaking Bad. It wasn’t real methamphetamine, of course, just a sugar prop, but candy maker Debbie Hall, who created the TV version, quickly started selling the ice-blue rocks in little drug baggies to fans at her Albuquerque shop the Candy Lady.4
Hall’s creation is just a novelty gag, but there are some people who think that the sugar it’s made from is as harmful as the meth it’s imitating. Addiction researchers warn that the tasty pleasures of candy, cakes, potato chips, and the rest of the sweet, fatty indulgences we fondly know as “junk food” light up the same brain receptors as heroin and cocaine. A team at Yale showed pictures of ice cream to women with symptoms of “food addiction” and found that their brains resembled the brains of heroin addicts looking at drug paraphernalia.5 The idea of food addiction has become part of the national anti-obesity conversation; even Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. secretary of health and human services, announced in May 2012 that for some people, obesity is the result of “an addiction like smoking.”6
The belief that craving a sugar fix is the same thing as jonesing for a hit of something stronger depends in large part on one’s definition of “addiction.” Representatives of the food industry tend to favor a more narrow designation. A study funded by the World Sugar Research Organization concluded in 2010 that although humans definitely like to eat sugar, the way we eat it doesn’t strictly qualify as addiction.7 On the other hand, Dr. Nora D. Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse warns that “processed sugar in certain individuals can produce … compulsive patterns of intake.”8 Compulsion isn’t quite addiction, but there are even more alarming reports of research at Princeton and the University of Florida, where “sugar-binging rats show signs of opiatelike withdrawal when their sugar is taken away—including chattering teeth, tremoring forepaws and the shakes.”9 Rats plied with a fatty processed diet of Ho Hos, cheesecake, bacon, and sausage at the Scripps Institute didn’t do too well either; the rats quickly started overeating, and wouldn’t stop gorging themselves even when the scientists began zapping them with electrical shocks. The study’s authors concluded that “junk food elicits addictive behavior in rats similar to the behaviors of rats addicted to heroin.”10
Call it addiction or craving or compulsion, it does seem certain that having a little candy causes many people to want to eat more. What makes junk food so irresistible, according to former FDA commissioner David Kessler, is its “hyperpalatability.” In his book The End of Overeating, Kessler shows how the food industry manipulates its products to make us want to keep eating them. The addition of large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt is what makes processed foods taste good. But these additives do more than just make bland ingredients taste better. Sweetness, saltiness, and fattiness, alone or in combination, may actually stimulate our appetites, and the more we eat, the more we crave. Thus, this food isn’t just palatable, it’s “hyperpalatable.” The arts of the food chemist and the food technologist bring us this experience in ever more perfect and irresistible forms. Witness the food-engineering marvel that is the Snickers bar as Kessler describes it: “as we chew, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts, and the caramel picks up the peanut pieces so the entire candy is carried out of the mouth at the same time.”11 It’s a sensory symphony of fat, sugar, and salt: perfectly delicious and completely impossible to re-create at home.
Hyperpalatability (i.e., extreme yumminess) plus aggressive marketing by corporate parent Mars, Inc. explains Snickers’s permanent perch at the top of the best-selling candy bar lists. The caramel, nougat, and peanut confection has been an American favorite since its introduction in 1930; now it dominates the international markets too, with annual global sales projected to exceed $3.5 billion.12 And Snickers is but one star in a globalized candy universe; in 2012, total worldwide retail candy sales were estimated at $118 billion.13 Hershey vies with Mars for top spot in the United States, while global conglomerates Ferrero, Mars, Kraft, and Nestlé rule the traditional candy markets of Europe and North America. New markets in far-flung locales previously innocent of American-style snack foods are getting bigger every day. Russian sales of Snickers have doubled in the last five years, and in 2011 the emerging middle classes in Russia, Brazil, India, and China accounted for over half the growth in retail candy sales.14 In more and more places, people are eating candy in the American style: as a snack, on the go, any day, or every day.
And candy in the United States is still going strong. It is true, as Steve Almond so morosely recounted in Candyfreak, that its prominence in American life today is much diminished from its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. But though the parlor candy dish may have passed out of fashion, plenty of candy is still finding its way into American mouths. Despite the loss of variety (in American manufacture, at least) and the disappearance of many old-time favorites, the quantity of candy sold on a per capita basis in the United States is higher today than it has ever been. Retail sales amount to some $32 billion per year and are growing, in good times and in bad, even through the most recent recession. Susan Whiteside, vice president of communications for the National Confectioners Association, suggests a simple reason for candy’s success: “When economic times are tough, the things that bring you a lot of happiness that don’t cost a lot of money tend to stay in your budget.”15
Candy is one of those simple pleasures that make people feel good, and it’s a pleasure that’s never hard to find. Candy is conveniently located right next to the cash register in just about every retail establishment, from suburban megastores to urban bodegas and every store in between, and sold from vending machines in schools, libraries, athletic parks, and wherever else people gather. It’s so plentiful and so ubiquitous that most of the time we don’t even notice it. As to how we define candy, I suspect that most of us operate on a pornography principal—we know it when we see it—but as I’ll explain later, the definition of candy is never quite so simple as one might think. For the time being, however, when I say “candy,” I mean (somewhat tautologically) those things that people commonly call candy, made by manufacturers who describe their business as the manufacture of candy. People who think about these things every day, like indefatigable candy reviewer Cybele May, who posts at candyblog.net, sort candy from not-candy with a few specific qualities in mind: a sweet substance with a base of sugar, not liable to spoilage, ready to eat without preparation or utensils, and consumed primarily for pleasure.16 This is pretty good, so far as commonsense definitions go, but, as I hope to show, it is getting a lot more difficult to say with confidence what sorts of foods ought to be included in the broad category of candy.
Usually, if we think about candy at all, it’s as the stuff of happy memories: cotton candy at the state fair, the birthday party piñata, the overflowing Easter baskets and Halloween bags, the glittering Hanukkah gelt, the comfort of the lollipop at the doctor’s office, the reward of M&M’s for potty training, the chocolates from a loved one on Valentine’s Day, or the prettily wrapped favors at weddings. But even when candy is freely given to children, and intended to heighten the pleasure of special events, it’s almost always accompanied by a warning: don’t let all that candy spoil your dinner, and remember to brush your teeth right afterward.
It seems paradoxical that the candy that gives us some of our happiest experiences is the same candy that rots our teeth, ruins our appetite, and sucks tender innocents into a desperate life of sugar addiction. Candy joins the ideas of pleasure and poison, innocence and vice, in a way that’s unique and a bit puzzling. The older name for a candy maker is confectioner, which comes from Latin roots that mean, roughly, “making together” or “putting together.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a confectioner is “one who makes confections, sweetmeats, candies, cakes, light pastry.” But there is another meaning for confectioner: a “compounder of medicines, poisons.” It is a troubling thought: sweetmeats and poison originating from the same source.
Once a year, when the leaves start to fall from the trees, the contradictions between candy as treat and candy as poison become impossible to avoid: Halloween—the high holy day of candy. When we get swept up in the spirit of the season, all the good intentions to cut back on junky sweets and avoid the candy dish come crashing down like a tower of Necco Wafers.
Halloween wasn’t always a candy bacchanal. Up until around 1960, trick-or-treaters might receive just about any small desirable thing: candy to be sure, but also small toys, coins, nuts, homemade cookies, or popcorn balls. Today, however, the sole treat that every trick-or-treater demands is candy, in vast quantities. There’s always a neighborhood curmudgeon who insists on handing out apples, a “virtuous” treat. They usually end up in the garbage can. Halloween is not a time for healthy snacks.
But some see the giant sack of Halloween candy not only as unhealthy but also as potentially deadly. When I was growing up, parents everywhere were always on high alert for the evil machinations of the “Halloween sadist,” the local psychopath who was out to get the neighborhood kiddies with strychnine-laced Pixy Stix and razor blade–studded caramels. We couldn’t touch our candy until Mom or Dad had inspected every piece for signs of tampering. Local hospitals even volunteered their radiology labs for post–trick-or-treat candy X-rays.
It turns out that the Halloween sadist is about 0.01 percent fact and 99.99 percent myth (I’ll get to the full Halloween story later, in chapter 12). Nevertheless, many parents are very, very nervous about leaving all that candy in the custody of their children. Some go so far as to seize the haul and confiscate it. Most kids in my neighborhood get to keep a few morsels and then are cajoled or forced into relinquishing the rest. The irony, of course, is that these parents who worry at the prospect of little Jayden eating all that candy are the very same ones who likely sat at their own front doors dispensing mountains of Skittles packs and Dum Dum pops to other people’s kids earlier that evening. It has become a uniquely American overparenting ritual: we give our kids candy, then we take it away. Even though people don’t worry as much anymore about the hazards of needles or arsenic lurking in the Halloween haul, there is still a nebulous feeling that candy may be dangerous, perhaps even deadly.
These days, the menace of candy feared by parents looks less like a child-hating sadist and more like a simple sugar cube. In one of the most prominent recent attacks, The New York Times Magazine ran an April 2011 cover story titled “Sweet and Vicious: The Case Against Sugar.” The article, by nutrition journalist Gary Taubes, publicized the work of biochemists who believe that sugar is not just “empty calories” but something far more dangerous. As Taubes put it, “Sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.”17
Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California at San Francisco, has become the most prominent and credible spokesman for this view. He was featured in April 2012 on 60 Minutes in a segment titled “Is Sugar Toxic?” and nearly three million viewers on YouTube have watched his ninety-minute lecture called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” which explains the underlying science. The biochemistry may be complex, but his message is simple: sugar is a killer.
The attention given to Lustig and others who are investigating the potential dangers of sugar heralds an epochal swing in the dietary pendulum. Up until recently, the orthodoxy shared by most experts in health and nutrition was what Taubes has called the “fat hypothesis.” From the 1960s up through the 1990s, the irrefutable rise in chronic diet-related diseases after the Second World War was blamed on dietary fat. But these days, it’s carbohydrates in general, and sugar in particular, that are starting to draw attention. In variations on what Taubes calls the “carbohydrate hypothesis,” researchers are increasingly turning their attention to the dangers of and damages caused by what used to be called comfort foods: refined flour (goodbye, pasta and bread), refined sugar (farewell, cakes and candies), and, most reviled of them all, high-fructose corn syrup (so long, sodas and sweet teas).18
The latest figures from the USDA for total sweetener consumption are about 130 pounds per capita per year, a significant improvement compared to the 150 or so pounds ingested by each American in the late 1990s but still a substantial increase over the approximate 110-pound consumption in the 1960s. Candy accounts for only about 6 percent of the total sugar in the overly sweetened American diet—most comes from processed foods and soft drinks—but it has the misfortune of lacking a foodish alibi behind which to hide its saccharine ways.19 If added sugar is our main dietary villain, then candy is among the most obvious culprits; unlike high-fructose-corn-syrup-laced hot dog buns or ketchup, candy shows its sugar on the outside.
Candy as Food
If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you already know that when you eat conventional beef, you’re mostly eating corn. But do you know you are eating candy too? There is an entire underworld of food salvage that sells “secondhand” food to livestock owners: things like bakery scraps and restaurant scrapings, along with expired and disfigured but still edible candy (wrappers and all—the expense of separating the wrappers would raise the price too much).
The feedlot operators are quite sanguine about it: “It has been a practice going on for decades,” livestock nutritionist Ki Fanning told a CNN reporter in October 2012, “and is a very good way for producers to reduce feed cost, and to provide less expensive food for consumers.” Since the price of corn started rising in 2009, even more of the relatively cheaper salvage candy is ending up in cattle feed mixes, a development that prompted CNN’s investigation, which was headlined “Kentucky Cows Chow Down on Candy.” The story features feedlot owner Joseph Watson, who praises the virtues of his candy blend. He says it fattens his cattle up nicely, with “a higher ratio of fat than actually feeding straight corn.” Farmer Mike Yoder claims that feeding ice cream sprinkles to his dairy cows has increased milk production. Chuck Hurst, a livestock nutritionist in Idaho, explains that the sugar in candy provides “the same kind of energy as corn,” but he is silent on the possible effects of the candy wrappers.20
There’s something deeply unsettling about this story. Despite the reassurances that candy is really the same as corn, common sense rebels. Cows shouldn’t be eating candy (much less candy wrappers). Candy is just … not food. As for humans, well, maybe a little candy is okay, but with all the warnings about sugar and worries about obesity, we know we probably shouldn’t eat too much. We, like cows, should eat food. Sounds simple enough.
The problem for us humans is that unlike the captive cows in the feedlot, we have to choose what to eat. And in the grocery store, we are surrounded by an array of choices our grandmothers would never have dreamed of. There are convenience foods promising to eliminate kitchen drudgery and “functional” foods promising health-enhancing benefits, low-fat and low-carb foods that will put our diets back on track, frozen foods and shelf-stable foods to hoard against the Apocalypse—a cornucopia of modern food engineering and packaging. Michael Pollan calls them “edible food-like substances”: we can eat them, but their relation to foods like fresh spinach and grandma’s meatballs is a little sketchy. It is practically impossible to escape these ubiquitous foodlike substances, even at the fancy natural grocery store. Labels that say organic, all-natural, and whole grain all sound very reassuring, but even the supervirtuous specialty foods like Annie’s Homegrown Organic Berry Fruit Snack or Earth’s Best Organic Crunchin’ Grahams Apple Cinnamon Stick are versions of Pollan’s “edible food-like substances.” They do, however, look a lot more like real food when compared with something that is clearly not food at all. Something like candy.
The idea that there is a hard line separating candy from food might be reassuring, but reality is never so simple. I’ve already suggested that it might be difficult even to define candy. So what about food? For millions of years, our hominid ancestors had no problem figuring out that anything they ate that didn’t kill them or make them sick must be food. Today, however, it’s impossible to talk about food without talking about nutrition, about how different foods may be more or less beneficial, about which foods are better and which worse for healthful living. We know all about calories; we study nutrition labels to see how much fat, protein, and carbs are in our food; and we worry about increasingly arcane food elements like trans fats and soluble fibers. Nutritional experts caution us to avoid the “empty calories” found in junk food like soda, chips, and candy, calories that add nothing but inches to our waistlines. Instead, we are taught to seek out “nutritious” food that will provide our bodies with the optimal materials for health and vitality.
This idea of food as a delivery device for nutrients is a result of the way of thinking that Pollan and others have called “nutritionism.”21 Nutritionism reduces every edible substance to its components (those we know about, at any rate) and then compares and measures and evaluates those components in isolation. So we don’t have meat or apples or bread; we have fats and carbs and proteins and vitamins and minerals and fiber. The fats and carbs and protein in meat or apples or bread are the same as the fats and carbs and protein in a bottle of Ensure, or in a package of PowerBars, or in a Swanson’s TV dinner. In the modern nutritional framework, food isn’t food so much as a modular accretion of chemical building blocks.
Nutritionism is what makes it so easy to blur the lines between food and candy. Looking at food in terms of calories and carbohydrates puts gumdrops in the same category as both apples and dinner rolls: they may have more or less of this or that nutrient, but they’re not fundamentally different.
Spelling out the consequences of nutritionism this way seems an affront to contemporary common sense, but there was a time when this logic would have appeared quite sound and candy was widely accepted as a very good kind of food. As I’ll show, the idea that candy could be good food laid the groundwork for the idea that all sorts of other manufactured, artificial, highly processed stuff could also be good food. And from the resultant confusion about what food actually ought to be originates much of our current dietary woe.
A Hidden History
Although candy was first mass-produced in England in the 1850s, the great candy industry of the early twentieth century was an American phenomenon. Candy as we know it today is a result of the fantastic powers unleashed by the Industrial Revolution, and it was one of the first factory-produced foods in the late nineteenth century. Subsequent developments led to the spread of American-style candy throughout the world, beginning with the empires built by Mars and Hershey in the 1920s and 1930s, and aided by the American military troops who traveled the globe during World War II, their rations packed full of candy, making new “friends” by passing out Baby Ruth bars and Tootsie Rolls.
By the second half of the twentieth century, America was exporting not only its candy bars but also its eating habits. Candy paved the way for a panoply of other highly processed foods that, like candy, were convenient, portable, palatable, and cheap. Some nutritionists and reformers now believe that the fundamental problem of the current food system is the excessive consumption of highly processed foods. This is a global issue, and the question of how to improve the accessibility of less-processed and more nutritious food is a complex one. I don’t pretend to have a solution. But I do believe that understanding how we got here is a good way to start.
When I first began researching the history of American candy, I read every book I could find about the great candy companies, along with books about the history of candy making (you’ll find a list of essential books in the bibliography). These books were interesting, but I wanted to understand how candy fit into the broader picture of food in general. I knew that manufacturing—and consumption—had grown quickly in the early 1900s, and I assumed that food historians would have something to say about the growing place of candy in the American diet. I was very wrong.
One of the first books I read was the classic work by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont, Eating in America: A History. This 1976 study aims to cover it all, from the Pilgrims to the present. I turned eagerly to chapter 29, “The Great American Sweet Tooth,” and found … two pages on chewing gum. That’s it. The rest is soda, ice cream, and sugar as a condiment. Do Americans eat candy? You wouldn’t know it from this history. My cravings were not much more satisfied by the next “big book” on the shelf, Richard J. Hooker’s 1981 history titled Food and Drink in America. Hooker does manage to amass material for a full two pages on candies, but it is his contention that “most candies were made in the home.”22 Focusing on fudge parties and taffy pulls, domestic entertainments popular at the turn of the century, he leaves the reader to conclude that America’s interest in candy has been confined to tittering girls in the drawing room.
More recent food histories do nothing to fill in the gaps. Carole Counihan’s 2002 anthology Food in the U.S.A. is pretty comprehensive, a good textbook for a food studies course. Alas, as for candy, not a peep. Andrew Smith describes thirty “turning points” in American food history in his book Eating History; the rise of industrial candy is not one of them, though the chapter on Cracker Jack comes tantalizingly close, and to be fair, Smith does pause for two pages to talk about chocolate. You won’t find candy in Harvey Levenstein’s Revolution at the Table or Paradox of Plenty, or in Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad or Something from the Oven. These are essential works for understanding how our food got to be the way it is today. But somehow they leave out the part about the candy. It can’t be that these experts are unaware of the millions of pounds of candy consumed each year, yet the way they define their subject matter makes candy irrelevant—they don’t consider candy a food.
I think they’re wrong. When you start looking at its history, candy isn’t separate from food at all. The story of food in America looks to me like one of those jacquard-woven beach towels. A colorful pattern shows on one side, and when you flip it over, the colors reverse. This is candy’s relationship to food history: on the top side, intended to be displayed to the world, candy doesn’t show. But when you peek underneath, you see the candy thread is an essential part of the whole story.
Tim Richardson, the author of a comprehensive history of sweets from a British perspective, believes that the deafening silence surrounding candy is because it exists in a “culinary limbo.”23 Candy isn’t a staple or a necessity, it isn’t part of ordinary meals or food rituals, and most of the time it isn’t even considered food. When it’s eaten with a meal, it’s given its own separate category—dessert—and when eaten at other times of day, it becomes a snack, as if calling it something else means it doesn’t really count. (But why should when we eat something have any effect on what it actually is?) Nutritionists make quick work of candy as “empty calories,” while anthropologists and food historians tend to consign such trivial morsels to scholarly oblivion.
But there are perhaps also more subtle reasons for candy’s relegation to the sidelines. Think about the meaning of the word sweet: it isn’t just a flavor, it’s a personality trait. Sweet people are nice, pleasant, kind, and helpful. They put others’ needs before their own. But calling someone sweet isn’t always a compliment. Men are almost never referred to as sweet. Sweetness implies smallness and unimportance, like candy. And who are the people we refer to as “sweet”? Women and children.
How did the taste of candy come to be connected to stereotypes about the character of women and children? Wendy Woloson, author of Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America, argues that the association of femininity and weakness with sweet-tasting foods has to do with the changing value of sugar. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sugar plantations were sources of immense wealth, and whoever controlled the sugar trade also wielded substantial political and economic power. Sugar was dear, and sweet foods costly. Powerful hosts would display their wealth at banquets with sumptuous sugar-spun centerpieces, a form of conspicuous consumption made all the more excessive by the fact that the sugar would go to waste. As production became more mechanized in the nineteenth century, the price of sugar fell. By the second half of the nineteenth century, sugar was both cheap and widely available. As a result, Woloson suggests, sugar “became linked with femininity: its economic devaluation coincided with its cultural demotion.”24 Sweets were banished to the margins of the table, just as women and children were banished to drawing rooms and nurseries.
It is a common belief that women and children are the ones who crave candy—the masculinity of a man who likes candy too much is often seen as somewhat suspect. This turns out not to be the whole story; historically men have also eaten their share and have even, at some points during the last century, been the primary market for it. But perhaps food historians have paid so little attention to candy because of this cultural connection between sweet, trivial people, i.e., women and children, and sweet, trivial candy.
Yet despite the fact that it seems so unimportant, candy provokes strong feelings in many people, feelings that seem much larger and more complex than the simple substance itself. Sweetness is just the beginning of these intense cultural associations. As I discovered with the jelly bean incident, many people fear the effects of candy on their children, and sometimes those fears can seem all out of proportion to the actual potential for harm. Adults also often act ambivalent about the pleasure they take in candy. Despite the fact that the actual physical substance of candy is fairly simple and, when broken down into individual ingredients, not that different from many other foods, somehow the meanings associated with it are extremely complicated and contradictory.
The language of candy spoken by many adults is the language of sin: guilty pleasure, temptation, indulgence. People apologize for eating candy, hide their stash in drawers and closets, eat it alone where no one will see, confess their cravings as though seeking absolution. It seems ironic; our culture aspires to be resolutely post-shame, as the frankness surrounding sexuality and sexual pleasure reminds us every day. Sometimes it seems like the guilt formerly reserved for sex has returned in our attitude toward confectionery. For some—perhaps women in particular—even previously unspeakable forms of sexual pleasure are less shameful than a midnight raid on the chocolate box.
Chocolate has long been associated with seduction, its exotic origins and sensual pleasures making it an easy metaphor for courtship, and when given as a gift, it’s an obvious token of desire. It is a long-standing tradition: men give women chocolates, with the implication that they will be given reciprocal pleasures in turn. But increasingly in the postfeminist era, chocolate is being marketed directly to women, as an easy indulgence and escape from everyday pressures and worries. As the luxury chocolate market has expanded, eating chocolates has been depicted as a form of female “self-love,” a private enjoyment that women choose and control. The “My moment. My Dove” ad campaign, which ran from 2005 to 2010, depicted women in private settings writhing in pleasure as they savored a morsel of Dove chocolate. And this is how Pepperidge Farm described the delights of a 2012 European-style chocolate biscuit called Signatures Chocolate Medallion Cookies Milk Chocolate Caramel: “Savor richness … followed by lightness … and a hidden silky caramel filling. Taste waves of pleasure, building to the Signatures sensation. Then revel in the afterglow of … Chocolateness.” After that experience, you’ll probably want a cigarette.
In the wake of the sexual revolution, women supposedly have the full right to their bodies and their desires. And yet, where candy eating is concerned, the pleasure seems all too often to bring with it a dose of guilt. Perhaps chocolate pleasure is not a sin against God, but it is certainly a sin against Diet. The indulgence demands penance. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to eat that Snickers bar for lunch, but we promise ourselves we’ll make up for it later with salad for dinner, no dressing. It’s the familiar binge-and-purge, sin-and-self-flagellation rhythm of perpetual dieting: chocolate pleasure today, mortification of the flesh tomorrow. No one would deny that candy has a lot of calories. But the language of candy eating goes far beyond the rational realms of science and nutrition. Candy is the apple in the garden, and we, particularly women, are the fallen who were too weak to resist temptation.
Women, fallen from dietary grace, may experience shame and regret in connection with their confectionery longings. But what about those true innocents, the children? Increasingly, there are more and more people like Gary, who would say that giving candy to a toddler amounts to some kind of alimentary child abuse. Food reformers have been making arguments about the damaging effects of candy on children since the beginning of commercial candy. But the current language of child abuse, and the association of feeding the wrong foods with physical assault, is gaining popularity. When food activist and chef Jamie Oliver appeared on Oprah in early 2010, she asked him point-blank: “Do you feel that parents who consistently feed their children junk food are practicing child abuse?” Jamie didn’t flinch. “Absolutely,” he replied.
As adults, we make our own choices about when and what and how to eat, and we acknowledge that our own bodies bear the consequences of those choices. But we view the bodies—and choices—of children differently. As adults, and especially as parents, we bear the responsibility for the health and well-being of our children’s bodies. We are responsible for nourishing them, providing rest and physical comfort, offering opportunities for play and exercise to make their bodies strong. So candy poses a serious complication to the issues of adult responsibility for children and also adult control of children. We are told that we should never give candy to children because it’s bad for them, but also that we shouldn’t deny our children what they want (whoever came up with the expression that something easy is “like taking candy from a baby” never tried to pry some from the bone-cracking grip of a toddler’s hand). It is incredibly difficult to navigate through this thicket of contradiction and fear.
The worries don’t stop with the effects of candy consumption. As ambivalent as we might be about when or how much candy to give our children, there is one thing everybody can agree on: children should never, ever, take candy from strangers. Candy is known as the secret weapon of the child snatcher, the pedophile, the local psychopath who tries to lure little girls and boys with lollipops. We’re always on the lookout for predatory men in white panel vans roving the neighborhood with sacks of sweets. But, as with the urban legends of Halloween candy poisoners, this fear turns out to be only tangentially related to reality. As FBI agent April Brooks of the Crimes Against Children Unit explains, “Most children are taken by people they know. Out of the many thousands of cases we see each year, only a few hundred are stranger abductions.”25 Despite this fact, the potent image of the candy-wielding child snatcher says a lot about how our society views children: they are innocent and therefore unable to tell the difference between generosity and malevolence, and they also are foolish and therefore easily lured by the simple pleasure of a candy treat into doing something their parents have warned them not to do. Children have not always been seen this way, and we might pause to wonder whether our own children are necessarily as naïve and gullible as we think they are.
But perhaps our fears about the sinister stranger luring innocents with candy also reflect something of our own vulnerability. Can we trust our senses? Like the child who can’t tell the difference between malevolent stranger and benevolent neighbor, we are often unsure if the enticing things that surround us are really good for us, whether we’re talking about candy or other foods. “Candy from strangers” might be a good metaphor for everything we eat. We don’t really know what most food we buy is, where it came from, or who made it. Is it as good as it looks? Or does the alluring surface hide something harmful? As adults, we’re supposed to know enough to tell the difference, but perhaps we are more like children faced with a proffered lollipop, so distracted by the sticky promise of pleasure that we ignore the warning signs.
Do You Eat Enough Candy?
It was over a century ago that America came to be known, in the immortal words of one 1907 visitor, as “a great candy eating nation.”26 In the next several chapters, I’ll show how candy grabbed hold of the American imagination and stomach in the early decades of the twentieth century, after developments in manufacturing technology and food science made it possible to create mass quantities of increasingly complex confections. Candy stories from the first part of the century are full of a sense of adventure and possibility: athletes who swore on the performance-boosting powers of candy, aviators surviving record-breaking flights on chocolate bars, sober scientists insisting that candy could fuel the nation to greatness. During the first two decades of the century, the popularity of manufactured candy encouraged many women to take up home candy making and then to start cooking with candy. Soon home cooks were adding marshmallows to omelets and stuffing chopped-up candy bars into tomatoes. (These intrepid pioneers inspired me to attempt some practical experiments; in chapter 6, you’ll learn what happened when I went to candy school to try my hand at boiling sugar, and why lima beans might be the next big thing in confectionery.)
The frivolous fun of candy might seem to have little to do with the serious stuff of international conflict; yet as I’ll explain, war has had a tremendous impact on the growth of candy’s importance in American life. The First World War inspired new methods of manufacturing which, when the war was over, unleashed a frenzy of candy bar innovation. The candy bar craze of the 1920s and 1930s brought into existence thousands of brands of bars: from the jazzy delights of Black Bottom and Gypsy bar (in honor of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee) to the delicious-sounding Chicken Dinner and Denver Sandwich—named for a meal, with a size and heft to match. The golden age of the candy bar ushered in a whole new style of eating. This was the era that gave us Admiral Byrd loading up his ship with ten thousand candy bars for vital food energy on his polar expedition, Shirley Temple warbling about the “Good Ship Lollipop” in the movie Bright Eyes, and magazine ads that queried anxiously, “Do you eat enough candy?” (plate 1).
And yet, as I’ll show, there was a dark side to all that candy fun. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, many Americans voiced worries about the potentially sinister effects of indulgence. In the late 1800s, confectioners were repeatedly accused of selling to children candies that were “adulterated” with fillers and toxins, including nasty things like “white earth” and floor scrapings. Candy—with its deliberately unnatural forms and surprising colors—was also exhibit number one for food reformers who railed against the dangers of artificial foods. When a child got sick in the early 1900s, newspapers were quick to post headlines blaring “Poisoned by Candy”—much to the outrage of candy makers, who went to great lengths to defend their product.
Many of the social and moral ills blamed on candy in the early twentieth century are surprising today. The temperance movement, for example, railed against alcohol and warned the nation of the dangers of drunkenness. But many Americans also believed there were significant similarities between alcohol and sugar (an impression perhaps enhanced by the vibrant trade in rum)—candy seemed perilously close to booze. As the nation moved toward national prohibition of alcohol, a controversy ensued: Would eating more candy distract from drinking, or would it actually stimulate the body to a state of drunkenness? Children’s indulgence in candy was of special concern to reformers sometimes derided as “Sunday school” moralists, who saw chocolate cigars as but the first step on a slippery slope toward the worst kinds of vices. Smoking, drinking, gambling, even masturbation might be the soul-crushing results of an early candy habit. Writers painted in vivid hues the horrors that would befall the child who ate too much. As for overindulging adults, the consequences were all too visible. Diet popularizer Lulu Hunt Peters went so far as to declare chocolate creams a mortal sin against the waistline.
Candy inflamed passions on every side, yet despite all the panic and controversy, it has never been as harmful as the worst critics have charged. From our enlightened perch, it’s easy to laugh at the seemingly irrational belief that the stimulating powers of candy would provoke paroxysms of sexual desire or induce intoxication in a manner akin to liquor. But to this day, many of the other suspicions about candy’s damaging effects persist more or less unquestioned. For example, when I started researching this book I believed that there really was such a thing as “poison candy” back in the early days. But when I looked carefully, I was surprised to discover that the charges leveled against early American candy makers were mostly the result of prejudice and fabulation. In fact, the most disturbing stories that I’ll share in this book aren’t about bad candy, but about people who have used candy to do bad things: parents who hid poison in their children’s treats, spurned lovers who took revenge with a tainted box of chocolates, scientists who subjected mentally disabled hospital patients to gruesome experiments to test the effects of excessive candy consumption.
American candy soared to new heights during the Second World War, when Uncle Sam bought up one-quarter of the factories’ production to send to the troops, for everything from daily rations to emergency survival kits. A new advertising slogan captured the mood perfectly: “Candy Is Delicious Food—Enjoy Some Every Day!” But in the period of peace and prosperity that followed, the perception and the importance of candy shifted dramatically, as ideas about it became tangled up in broad-ranging social controversies about safety, nutrition, and health. Candy was part of the story of how we got fluoride in our water, and of how the artificial sweetener cyclamate came to be seen first as diet salvation and then as cancer-causing menace. Changing views of food pushed people away from eating as much candy in the 1960s and 1970s as they had before the war. Artificial sweeteners made candy seem that much more fattening, “sugarphobes” warned that the sweet white powder might be just another drug, dentists gained new ammunition in their charge that candy was the primary culprit in tooth decay, and the growing popularity of “health foods” made “junk foods” like candy look that much unhealthier in comparison.
Candy didn’t go away under this pressure, it just changed its face. In the second part of the twentieth century, candy ended up everywhere, from the breakfast table to outer space. And in our own day, we are surrounded by all sorts of never before imagined versions of candy, even if words like fruit and vitamins have the effect of making candy seem to magically disappear.
In these pages, I’ll argue that candy was at the leading edge of a broader transformation in food processing that, over the course of the twentieth century, would completely upend traditional assumptions of what to eat, when to eat, and how to eat it. Candy was the first ready-to-eat processed food, the original ancestor of all our fast, convenient, fun, imperishable, tasty, highly advertised brand-name snacks and meals. Candy bars were the first packaged snacks, the first kind of food that was made to be eaten on the go and that could serve as a meal in a pinch. The idea that candy was a food that could be eaten anytime and anywhere planted the seeds of what we now call the “culture of snacking.” And the goals of candy makers—variety, novelty, deliciousness, with nutrition as a low priority—have become the universal guiding principles of processed-food innovators.
While candy shares much with its processed-food kin, candy is the one kind of processed food that proclaims its allegiance to the artificial, the processed, the unhealthy. This is something I really like about candy: it’s honest. It says what it is. But this honesty also makes candy an easy target. By blaming candy for bad nutrition, cavities, and obesity, we can keep buying without worry the foods that stock the rest of the grocery store aisles.
The ease with which all the other foodish stuff gets let off the hook is what makes candy scapegoating especially troubling to me. Beyond a few cosmetic “fresh food” trappings, the foods that line the grocery shelves and are served up in fast-food and convenience outlets today are what Brazilian nutrition researcher Carlos Montiero has called “ultra-processed foods,” foods processed so far beyond their original form as to be better described as fabricated rather than grown.27 These hyperpalatable products get the bulk of their calories from a few cheap commodities (corn, soy, wheat) flavored with cheap fats and cheap sweeteners. The ancestral relation between candy and today’s ultraprocessed foods is a compelling reason to look a little more closely at the rise of the candy industry and the controversies and worries that accompanied it. The story of candy in America is a story of how the processed, the artificial, and the fake came to be embraced as real food. And it’s also the story of how it happened that so much of what we call food today is really candy.
So what about that handful of jelly beans? Are they evil or just misunderstood?28 The tale of how we came to be asking this question is a strange and fascinating one. For the answer, read on.
Copyright © 2013 by Samira Kawash