Jawbreakers, jujubes, Pop Rocks, jelly beans – this is the stuff of childhood memories, even if parents treat candy like hazardous material to be pried from hot little hands.
Candy does not deserve its reputation as kiddy crack, argues cultural critic and historian Samira Kawash in her new book, Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, published Oct. 15 by Faber & Faber.
It cannot take the blame for obesity, sugar addiction or bad teeth, since candy accounts for just 6 per cent of the 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of sugar consumed by Americans per capita each year, observes Kawash, a professor emerita at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Unlike the granola bars, sweetened cereals and syrupy tomato sauces that so many parents serve to their kids, candy is honest about having little nutritional value, she points out.
As Halloween draws near, Kawash explains why we should follow whole-food activist Michael Pollan’s advice to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” – and then feel free to have some jelly beans.
You are a fan of Snickers and Kraft caramels. Don’t you find the more candy you eat, the more you crave?
Scientists are beginning to find that all kinds of pleasurable foods activate the pleasure centres in the brain. In the case of candy and other sweets, we have a sort of forbidden-fruit aura around them and a sense of guilt and anxiety that gives them an extra charge. I think it’s hard to separate the physiological responses to candy from the emotional and symbolic responses that we have.
Doesn’t sticky candy cause tooth decay?
This is another way that candy has been demonized. The chemistry inside the mouth involves genetics and bacteria and diet and hydration, but the mechanisms are poorly understood. I don’t doubt that there’s some kind of connection between candy and dental health but there are all kinds of things that will stick to your teeth, and yet we never hear that pasta rots your teeth.
What is your stance on Halloween treats?
It’s a pity that the Halloween we have today is so dominated by candy. If you look back at how Halloween was celebrated 100 years ago, there were a lot more things to do. Thinking about what else could be fun at Halloween besides eating enormous quantities of candy might be more helpful than telling kids they can’t have the candy they bring home.
What can we learn from candy’s history?
Candy was the first artificial food made completely from chemistry and technology. By the middle of the 20th century, many foods were made the same way. Breakfast cereal and a lot of the frozen foods, packaged foods, food bars and meal replacements, these too are wonders of chemistry, engineering and technology – wholly artificial foods. There was a time when we were very excited about the prospect of artificial food, but today we’re more likely to ask questions about whether artificially-made things, chemical things, can actually take the place of plants and animal products that come from nature.
You coined the term “candyfication” – what does it mean?
It is what I call this phenomenon whereby food becomes more sweet, more convenient and portable. More and more kinds of food have come to resemble and even to taste like candy and yet we don’t call them candy, we call them snack bars, we call them breakfast, we call them something from the vending machine that you can eat at the gym.
What makes energy bars with protein and vitamins no better than candy?
We’re still living with a 19th-century idea of nutrients: proteins, vitamins, fats and carbohydrates. When we eat foods that are artificially constructed to contain those discrete nutrients, we are not taking into account the complexities of how our bodies metabolize food. The nutrients that are on the label are another way that we get soothed into the idea that we are eating real food.
If we are already eating too many candy-like foods, why defend candy itself?
I’ve always liked candy and this message that candy has some kind of uniquely harmful properties has always troubled me. I think it’s the accumulation of all of the foods that are candy in everything but name that is troublesome.
Is your book in fact a cleverly disguised attack on the processed-food industry?
That’s an interesting way to read it. I think that processed food has brought us many wonderful things [but] we need to do a better job of asking the processed-food industry to be more clear about what it is that they are selling us. When we get things in a box that has sunshine and farms on it and what’s in the box has emulsions and chemicals, it’s no wonder that people get confused about what good eating is.
What is your takeaway message for parents?
I would really hope that parents could take away the message that moralistic prohibitions on certain kinds of food tend more to distort our relationships with food than rescue us from bad eating. I’m not that far from mainstream nutritionists who say treats are treats and food is food and you have to tell the difference – it’s a pretty simple message.
This interview has been condensed and edited.