For most Americans, candy is an uneasy pleasure, eaten with side helpings of guilt and worry. Yet candy accounts for only 6 percent of the added sugar in the American diet. And at least it's honest about what it is―a processed food, eaten for pleasure, with no particular nutritional benefit. So why is candy considered especially harmful, when it's not so different from the other processed foods, from sports bars to fruit snacks, that line supermarket shelves? How did our definitions of food and candy come to be so muddled? And how did candy come to be the scapegoat for our fears about the dangers of food?
In Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, Samira Kawash tells the fascinating story of how candy evolved from a luxury good to a cheap, everyday snack. After candy making was revolutionized in the early decades of mass production, it was celebrated as a new kind of food for energy and enjoyment. Riding the rise in snacking and exploiting early nutritional science, candy was the first of the panoply of "junk foods" that would take over the American diet in the decades after the Second World War―convenient and pleasurable, for eating anytime or all the time.
And yet, food reformers and moral crusaders have always attacked candy, blaming it for poisoning, alcoholism, sexual depravity and fatal disease. These charges have been disproven and forgotten, but the mistrust of candy they produced has never diminished. The anxiety and confusion that most Americans have about their diets today is a legacy of the tumultuous story of candy, the most loved and loathed of processed foods.
Candy is an essential, addictive read for anyone who loves lively cultural history, who cares about food, and who wouldn't mind feeling a bit better about eating a few jelly beans.
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Samira Kawash has a Ph.D. in literary studies from Duke University and is a professor emerita at Rutgers University. She is the author of Dislocating the Color Line and the founder of the website Candyprofessor.com. Kawash lives in Brooklyn.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 c...
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