At a time when dentists, physicians, policy makers, school-board trustees and yes, even perky Michelle Obama are taking aim at gummies and chocolate bars, candy needs a defender.
After all, is it so different from the equally sugar-laden fruit juice and fatty granola bars that market themselves as quasi-health foods?
A professor emerita in women’s studiesat Rutgers University seems an unlikely champion of sweets, but Samira Kawash has taken them up as her cause. Marrying her life-long love of candy corn and her academic background, she writes about the cultural and social history of candy on her blog Candyprofessor.com and is researching the subject for an upcoming book. In an interview from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., she explains why candy should be considered a food.
What defines candy? What separates the granola bars that are loaded with a lot of the same things as candy from the stuff that is artificially coloured?
So there’s no artificial colours in the granola bar?
There very well may be. It’s just the brown shades we see are so innocuous – unless it’s chocolate of course.
The FDA has been reconsidering some of the rules about artificial colours and it was really interesting – a lot of the press coverage was about the colours of Cheetos and candy. These really violent colours. Bright yellows and bright greens. You know they don’t occur in nature. People are like, ‘Yeah, those can’t be good for you.’
But you go to the grocery store and everything in the freezer section has artificial colour. Chicken nuggets aren’t going to be lovely chicken flavour without a little help from your chemical friends. Nobody looks at that food and thinks there’s anything artificial.
Historically, what qualifies as food and what doesn’t?
If you go back to the 19th century, there wasn’t very much candy around. Candy was a special thing that was only available at very special times. People didn’t really think too much about whether it was food or not. It was obviously a treat that you might get at Christmas or at a special time, but once candy starts to be produced industrially at mass quantities really the question comes up, ‘What is it?’
Unlike canned peas or baking powder, candy didn’t look like anything you’d be making. Candy’s status as food was a question very early on because it did seem different from regular food. On the other hand, what is food? Food is stuff you eat. Clearly, candy is stuff you can eat.
What are the major hang-ups healthy eating advocates have about it? Empty calories? Those violent, artificial colours?
What really strikes me when I hear this kind of criticism of candy specifically is, if it’s about the sugar, we have so much sugar in so much of our food. You don’t hear the same kind of alarm when it comes to ketchup or jam, for example. I think it has something to do with the form of candy. Candy just presents itself as candy. Here’s something you can eat. It’s a treat. It doesn’t really pretend to be a fruit or a vegetable or anything else. It’s just candy.
There are so many products that are grain clusters or granola bars that advertise their nutritional benefits. Is that kind of food in a way more dangerous because it may very well have the same sugar content, fat content as candy but is trying to present itself as a healthy snack?
I think candy is really useful as the scapegoat. We can say, ‘That’s clearly something really bad so let’s not eat it.’ I think there’s something insidious and dishonest about these big food-like things. [They] put a big apple on the box and somehow you think you’re eating an apple when really it’s just another kind of candy. ‘Oh, this is a fruit snack.’ Well, if you look at it it’s, you know, a gummy candy.
They’re even in a different aisle than candy.
Yeah! Oftentimes you’ll find something like that in the breakfast aisle or in the kids’ food aisle instead of over in the candy aisle. Let’s face it: We really like the things that candy gives us. That sweetness and that treatness and that texture. But we’re also really worried about what we’re eating. I think these pseudo-candy foods create an easy way to not have to ask yourself the hard questions about what you’re really eating.
If we were to classify candy as a food, would it work to include candy on Canada’s Food Guide? There’s this idea that a daily suggested serving would have to accompany it.
I think we need to go back to the time before the food guides. We should be getting foods from the edges of the supermarket: the unprocessed fruits and vegetables, the unprocessed meats, the dairy products. When you’ve filled your diet with real food, having a little bit of candy is not really going to be too harmful.
This interview has been condensed and edited.