It all started with the Jelly Bean Incident.
My daughter was 3 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 1 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 3-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. Even more worrisome were exposés in 2010 on Detroit television stations about proto-alcoholic teens sneaking “drunken gummy bears” into homerooms and movie theaters. 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. In the spring of 2012, actor Bryan Cranston offered talk-show host David Letterman a taste of “blue meth,” the superpotent methamphetamine that drove 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, N.M., shop the Candy Lady.
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. 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.”
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. 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.” 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.” Rats plied with a fatty processed diet of Ho Hos, cheesecake, bacon, and sausage at the Scripps Research 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.”
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 Food and Drug Administration 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: “[A]s 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.” It’s a sensory symphony of fat, sugar, and salt: perfectly delicious and completely impossible to recreate at home.
Hyperpalatability (i.e., extreme yumminess) plus aggressive marketing by corporate parent Mars, Inc. explains Snickers’ 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. And Snickers is but one star in a globalized candy universe; in 2012, total worldwide retail candy sales were estimated at $118 billion. Hershey vies with Mars for the 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 past five years, and in 2011 the emerging middle classes in Russia, Brazil, India, and China accounted for more than half the growth in retail candy sales. 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.”
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 principle—we know it when we see it—but the definition of candy is never quite so simple as one might think. 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. This is pretty good, so far as common-sense definitions go, but 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.
Excerpted from Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure by Samira Kawash, published in October 2013 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2013 by Samira Kawash. All rights reserved.