Over the past 40 years, the field of behavioral economics has emerged to explain why humans make irrational decisions. We talk with one of the pioneers of the field to find out what’s behind the choices we make, and how we can use this knowledge for good.
Halloween brings little goblins and ghouls to front doors in search of one thing: candy. The holiday stands somewhat at odds with current concerns about “hyperpalatable” foods, sugar consumption and obesity. Yet our cultural connections to candy are deep and sales remain strong. We explore the history of candy and how these treats have shaped the American sweet tooth.
- Alyssa Theodore co-owner, The Sugar Cube in Alexandria, VA
- Samira Kawash author, "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure"; blogger, CandyProfessor; Professor Emerita, Rutgers University
Read An Excerpt
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.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation. Candy serves as a kind of cultural talisman, whether visions of sugar plums, hollow plastic pumpkins full of candy, loot or piles of foil-wrapped chocolate guilt. It's part of memories made on special days but it's also an indulgence we've come to have an uneasy relationship with. Gone are the days of lollipops from the dentist and ads asking whether you eat enough candy, the likes of which ran in the '20s. But whether you go for chocolate, gummies, caramel or nugget, chances are good you've had at least a little in the last 48 hours.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to explore our long running and convoluted history with candy is Alyssa Theodor. She is co-owner of the Sugar Cube. That's a candy store in old town Alexandria, Va. Alyssa Theodore, thank you for joining us.
MS. ALYSSA THEODOREThank you.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from Argo Studios in New York City is Samira Kawash, founder of the website CandyProfessor.com and author of the book "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure." She's also a professor Emerita at Rutgers College. Samira Kawash, thank you for joining us.
DR. SAMIRA KAWASHI'm happy to be here.
NNAMDISamira, it's Halloween Eve so let's start there. The holiday used to be more about pranks and less about candy. How did it come to be the sugar fest it is today?
KAWASHWell, it's really amazing to go back to the 1920s and see that candy is almost invisible in celebrations of holidays. And the candy industry in the '20s, it really didn't even occur to them that they could sell more candy at Halloween. Fast forward to the 1950s when people -- things have calmed down after the Second World War. It's the post-war expansion. The suburbs are growing and Trick or Treating becomes increasingly popular. At that time lots of different things were available for Trick or Treats, coins, toys, popcorn balls, homemade cookies. But there was also candy.
KAWASHAnd more and more candy became the sort of go-to thing for Trick or Treat. Why? Well, it comes in small portions. It's wrapped for safety. And boy, you know, let's confess, it's a lot easier for mom to go out and buy a bag of Snickers than to spend the afternoon backing cookies. So, you know, the candy industry did a great job of positioning their product as the treat for Halloween so that now, I mean, we don't even think there could be anything else. And our kids, of course, that's all they want. Please don't give them those pretzel and popcorn things.
NNAMDIAlyssa, it's my understanding that Halloween is not necessarily your busiest time of year but that you can still pull out all the stops. What kind of candy did you bring in to the shop for the holiday this year?
THEODOREWell, our specialty items at Halloween are homemade caramel apples. On Halloween itself we do candied apples. That's the bright red glistening jewels, Popcorn balls. That's a seasonal specialty. We are -- that's the beauty of having the shop. We're allowed to sell some of those things that are suspect when handed out on the street. We can bring back some of those classic confections, as well as the traditional candy corn.
NNAMDISamira, the very definition of candy can be hard to pin down. You write about sugary cereals as well as chocolates and taffies. How do you define candy?
KAWASHWell, you know, candy is like pornography. You know it when you see it. I mean, really, it's so funny to look around at the things that call themselves candy and then other things that look really similar and taste really similar and call themselves good food. Like I'm thinking of those granola, caramel, chocolate chip bars which, you know, they really do taste like candy bars but they say, oh don't worry, we are not candy bars. We're a good snack food. And, you know, to me I like candy because it's honest.
KAWASHYou know, real candy says, I'm candy. I'm not fiber, I'm not vitamins, I'm not going to take the place of any real food for you. I'm just going to give you this delicious treat. And I think that's what I think is important about candy. It's honest. It says what it is. It's just a treat. What worries me when I look around is all that other candy-like stuff that actually is candy underneath but that disguises itself as something else. And it gives us a nice alibi to eat lots of candy all the rest of the time too. But really we're fooling ourselves. I mean, people, a fruit snack is not fruit. It's candy.
KAWASHSo I think that one of the things that I really want to encourage is, you know, Halloween is a great time to enjoy candy, but enjoy it as candy. Say it's candy. Say it's a treat. Don't get confused about all that other candy-like food out there.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number for you to join this Food Wednesday conversation. Do you think of candy as food or something else? What defines it for you, 800-433-8850? What's your favorite candy? Tell us why you love it and where you find it. You can also send email to email@example.com. You can send a Tweet at kojoshow or you can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Samira, in doing your research for this book, you found that candy had been relegated to a footnote by many food historians. Why do you think that is and how does this history you've uncovered provide greater context for thinking about our food industry more broadly?
KAWASHWell, it's interesting. Candy is everywhere and it's a huge $6 billion business. And yet when we talk about food and if you go to the food section of the newspaper and the food magazines it's like it doesn't exist, you know. And that really fascinated me because we eat quite a lot of it. And stuff we eat would -- you know, you'd think that we'd be concerned about that as part of the larger food picture. So going back and sort of uncovering that history of candy, part of it was discovering the ways in which candy really succeeded 100 years ago by being embraced as a food.
KAWASHA hundred years ago people were worried about under eating and they were worried about getting nutrition cheaply. And they were worried about how to get more calories. And candy actually presented itself as quick energy, convenient, compact calories, a quick way to get a boost. Fast forward to today where we're a lot more concerned about eating too many calories and we're trying to avoid foods that are adding things to our diet that we don't think are good for us. And so candy's reputation has changed quite a lot.
KAWASHBut all along the way candy's really been right there in the food system and part of food. And of course the way that candy's made by taking very cheap raw materials and manipulating them with machines and technology and chemicals and transforming them into something very palatable and very pretty to look at usually, that's how so much of our food is made. Like go to the grocery store and you'll see the exact same processes that make candy and the same ingredients that make candy, producing all kinds of things in bags and boxes in the freezer.
KAWASHSo candy really is the beginning of artificial food and so many are the kinds of food that are truly artificial that we eat really kind of have their roots in candy.
NNAMDIIt's your book that informed me that candy was one of the earliest foods to be mass produced. That I did not know. We're talking with Samira Kawash. She is founder of the website CandyProfessor.com and author of the book "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure." She's also a Professor Emerita at Rutgers University. She joins us from Argo Studios in New York City. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have, well, a complicated relationship with sugary treats, tell us how you manage it, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIJoining us in our Washington studio is Alyssa Theodore. She is co-owner of the Sugar Cube, a candy store in old town Alexandria, Va. Alyssa, the last decade has brought a boom in so-called food culture and public health campaigns targeting obesity. What made you decide seven years ago to open up a store devoted exclusively to candy?
THEODOREWell, growing up I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. It was a square mile. It had two candy stores. And one of my greatest pleasures in life was to take my bike on Saturday afternoons, stop at the closest, pick up my bag of candy and then head over to the library, eat my candy in the kids' room and read the afternoon away. And it's -- candy's never lost that innocent pleasure for me. And as I grew up and became passionate about other types of foods, it was always there in the background.
THEODOREMy sister the co-owner of the shop with me actually did her part-time job as a young student at a candy shop. And when we grew up and thought about what we wanted to do, opening a candy store sounded like a great idea. I mean, who's unhappy when you walk into a candy shop? I'm not doing your taxes and I'm not going to tell you -- you know, deliver bad news. So we opened up in December of 2006.
NNAMDIAnd seven years later here you are. Once the bright colors drew me in off the old town sidewalk would I -- what would I typically find in your store and who makes it?
THEODOREWell, our unofficial motto is, we are not candy snobs. There's -- you mentioned the gourmet food revolution. And that has not left candy untouched as well. There are marvelous things happening in American-made chocolate. Chocolate used to be the province of Europe but a lot of Americans are making chocolate now and treating it the same as they would wine or cheese, talking about, you know, where the bean is grown and the flavor profile. And you'll find that in our bar selection. And you'll find that in our handmade truffle selection.
THEODOREBut we also wanted to have the lollipops and the jellybeans and the gummy bears. And you'll find all of that as well. So some of the big companies, you know, like Haribo and Jelly Belly down to one- and two man operations from, you know, Brooklyn or Utah or California, people doing good stuff across the country will bring it in.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this Food Wednesday conversation on candy. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you keep candy in your house or office? Tell us what and why or why not, 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIA candy conversation on Food Wednesday with Alyssa Theodore, co-owner of the Sugar Cube. That's a candy store in old town Alexandria, Va. and Samira Kawash, founder of the website CandyProfessor.com, author of the book "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure." She's also a Professor Emerita at Rutgers University. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIAC Tweets, "Zots, first tried them at the German Gourmet in Falls Church. They have a fizzy pop rocks-like center. They're great." Rosemary Tweets, "Chunky candy bars." Blue Jays End tweets, "Vanilla Tootsie Rolls. First found them at a Dollar Tree. Should have stocked up." Xavier emails to ask, "How do the Willy Wonka books and movie factor into candy history?" Can you tell us about that, Samira Kawash?
KAWASHWell, you know, I think Willy Wonka was one of the things that got me excited about this project, that image of the candy land. And it's interesting to discover that, you know, through -- from the end of the 19th century on forward there have been all kinds of different images of candy lands. But they've really changed. The candy lands in the early 20th century were cautionary tales. A writer would depict all the joys and wonders of candy and then warn of the terrible tummy aches and bad things that were going to happen to the child that wasn't bewaring of the candy.
KAWASHCandy Land in the '50s was the board game Candy Land. And, you know, just contrast that where candy is fun and benign and pleasurable and fun. And then, you know, Willy Wonka is a sort of cautionary tale, right. Don't crave candy too much because something bad might happen to you and really the way that morality and candy are intertwined. And Willy Wonka is quite fascinating.
NNAMDISamira, you know that a lot of the neurosis, a lot of the anxiety that parents have about candy and their kids isn't necessarily about the candy. What is it about?
KAWASHYou know, that is what I have come to believe because, you know, over and over again I hear things about candy that are not applied to very similar foods. For example, you know, the jellybeans -- the handful of jellybeans is kiddy crack. But the apple juice box is good fruit juice. And to me I'm like, well there's lots of sugar in the apple juice box, in fact, more than in the little handful of jellybeans. So why is the apple juice box natural and healthful and the jellybeans are, you know, somehow dangerous. And we should keep them away from our kids and make sure they don't eat too many of them.
KAWASHI think the idea that, you know, this purely artificial substance that gives us so much pleasure, we have real anxieties about that. And I think also about the safety of our children. And, let's face it, there's a lot of dangers out there that we have no control over, but we do control what our young children eat. And I think sometimes by controlling the candy that our children eat, we give ourselves a kind of reassurance that we're keeping them safe. But really I think it's an emotional reassurance rather than a practical one.
NNAMDIAlyssa, you have said that sometimes parents, especially of young kids, view you as a kind of crack cocaine dealer.
THEODOREYes. I'm your friendly neighborhood drug pusher.
NNAMDIWhy is that?
THEODOREI think as Samira said, nobody's kidding anybody. I'm not going to say that candy is as nutritionally valuable as kale. It's a treat. It is what it is. It is very honest about that. And everybody wants to do the best for their kids. And candy is an easy place to fixate that control onto.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Samira, when it comes to setting limits, what do you think the best approach is for both parents and kids?
KAWASHWell, I think when we point to one food, which is candy, and say this is the danger food and this is the food we're going to limit, we set our kids up for a lifetime of complicated and confusing relationships with things like candy. Because the fact is, there is candy everywhere. As soon as your kid leaves the house they are surrounded by candy of all kinds. So I think the important thing that we have to think about as parents is, how do we encourage our children to have a healthy self-regulating relationship with this candy? Because even if you can prevent your five-year-old from having candy, that's not going to last very long, so that's a short-term Band-Aid solution.
KAWASHA real solution for raising a healthy adult is to start when our children are young to teach them about good food and teach them about knowing their body and teach them about feeling good. And also teach them that candy is out there and it's a treat. And it's okay to like and it's okay to enjoy, but you want to think about that in the balance of all the other foods you're eating. I think giving children the control over the candy, helping them learn to set their own limits, that's the way we help our children in the long term become responsible adults. Short term, set limits, fine. It doesn't do anything. It doesn't help them grow up.
NNAMDISame question to you, Alyssa.
THEODORETo that point I think kids are better self-regulators than we give them credit for being. We put on children's parties at our shop. And one of the options that parents can choose -- no doubt with some urging from their children -- is a candy buffet at the end. And the kids put together their own tote of candy from an array of choices. You would think it would be a free-for-all, pandemonium. And it surprises me every time. We allot about a pound per child, not because we expect them to take a pound -- and they don't -- but just simply, you never want to run out. It's just being cautious. And it surprises me every time how they'll make their choices and they'll say when. They do a great job on their own.
NNAMDIThat I have observed also. They know how to say when themselves. Here is Mike...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Samira.
KAWASH...I just want to add to that that in my experience the kids who go crazy when candy is in front of them are the ones who aren't permitted to have it or who have it severely restricted. And so you really see there's, you know, a direct effect from severe limitation to inability to control oneself when faced with the possibility. And I love -- hearing about those parties makes me very happy.
NNAMDIHere's Mike in Needmore, Pa. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEYeah, I have to say that for years now we've been giving out apples, popcorn and peanuts to children. And it’s worked. I mean, it's an alternative to candy. But there is a situation here and that is that we are facing diabetic kids, future victims of heart attacks, strokes. Things have shifted.
MIKEAnd one thing I've noticed, when you use the word treat at my farm stand I notice -- and I've noticed this several times -- that when vendors near me give out muffins, chocolate chips cookies and waves of treats and the kids come up to me and I give them a slice of a peach or apple, they drop the so-called treat -- I'm talking about toddlers -- and eats the apple. I think you're talking about conditioning, conditioning obesity, conditioning of future of real problems down the road in terms of health care expenditures.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call to which, Samira Kawash, you say what?
KAWASHWell, I would just like to point out that candy is only 6 to 8 percent of the added sugar in our diet, which is to say, yeah, we have a problem with food in this over-developed country. But candy is not the problem. The problem is the other 90 something percent of the sugar that is coming from somewhere. And it's not coming from candy. Well, a lot's coming from soda but the rest is coming from everything else that we're eating that has all kinds of sugar added to it.
KAWASHAnd I think what I want to say is don’t -- I'm not saying eat all the sugar you want, you'll be fine. I'm saying, candy Is a little tiny thing. And if you like candy, it's not going to kill you. What you need to be worrying about is all the other stuff that you're eating because a lot of it is candy in disguise. And if you're not thinking about that and if you're not being honest and truthful about what it is that you're putting in your body, then yes, I think you are, you know, down a path of trouble. But the problem is not the candy. The problem is the whole system that encourages us to want candy-like experiences from everything that we eat.
NNAMDIAlyssa Theodore, the market can't move what people won't buy. As consumers voice concerns about ingredients like artificial dyes and corn syrup, how are manufacturers responding?
THEODOREThey're responding. We're seeing a lot of candies coming out now that use natural plant-based dyes. A lot of manufacturers are shifting to other types of syrup, brown rice syrups and tapioca syrups instead of the dreaded corn syrup, although whether they are actually that different in how they're manufactured, Samira could probably speak to. But they're responding. You'll see also the portion-sized packets craze has come to candy as well.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Patrick who says, "Your guest is so right about the granola bars and such. My favorite is a tossup between Baby Ruth and Butterfinger, two totally different flavors but both delicious. I keep hard candy on my desk at work." Alyssa, candy canes, candy corn, jellybeans, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, each suggests a different holiday tradition. How much of our infatuation with candy has to with the sense of nostalgia? It certainly has to do with why you opened your store in the first place.
THEODOREIt certainly does. Our biggest sale periods are Christmas, Valentines and Easter, followed by Halloween probably after that. You can't separate candy from those holidays anymore. And eating the candies that we remember take us back to our childhood. But it's not just at holiday time. We carry a lot of what people would call retro candies and I love hearing people come into the shop and say, I remember this. I haven't seen this in years. Oh, I used to, you know, fill in the blank when I was a kid. I used to go to this store. You know, I mentioned it myself that candy was a part of those Saturday afternoons as a child.
THEODOREWhat's funny is what they want to talk about and what actually appeals to the taste buds as an adult are totally different things.
NNAMDISamira, same question to you. How much of our infatuation with candy has to do with the sense of nostalgia?
KAWASHWell, I think that candy does take us back to a simpler time, and not only for each individual a simpler time in our life. Perhaps those associations with childhood and childhood memories but also I think a time when food was simpler. And, you know, that Baby Ruth bar and that Butterfinger bar back when those bars first appeared, those were the only -- you know, those were candy bars. There weren't all these other kinds of bars that were also highly artificial and highly manufactured to compete with the candy bars.
KAWASHAnd I think that part of our nostalgia associated with candy is that candy is candy. And it isn't this, you know, complicated is it good, is it bad, you know, does it sort of have all these different nutrients? And it's just candy. And I think being able to eat something and say it's just candy, that's kind of a relief sometimes.
NNAMDIDespite the quote unquote "dangers," despite the war on obesity, Samira, candy seems as popular as ever. How as the way it's marketed changed over the years and how robust an industry is it?
KAWASHWell, I think one of the big changes over the past century has been the growing dominance of Mars and Hershey, particularly in the U.S., so that more and more of the candy -- I mean, they bought up lots of little candy companies and others went out of business. And, you know, when you go to most of your major outlets, most of the candies there are their products. I think this is too bad because, you know, 50 years ago the American candy scape was so much more various.
KAWASHAnd I love hearing about shops like Alyssa's Sugar Cube shop because those are places where candy can be revived. Smaller candies can be sold in stores like that. Alyssa can pay attention to smaller manufacturers and bring them out. And, you know, introduce people to those exciting flavors from the past. I think that, you know, the monotony of the candy that you buy in the drug store and the grocery store is disheartening. And, you know, there's really nothing special about it. So I think that this new possibility for artisanal candies and small manufactured candies and experimental candies, all of that makes candy exciting again.
NNAMDIAlyssa, what has been your experience over the past seven years with how robust the industry is?
THEODOREYeah, there's definitely a new generation of confectioners coming up, partly riffing off of the products of the big manufacturers, the Nestles, the Mars, the Hershey's. And doing it on -- taking them back to a home kitchen level. I think of Liddabit Sweets in Brooklyn making the Snacker bar, which is like a Snickers, if you made it yourself and ten times better. Or, you know, then there's the group that's going a completely different direction where they're taking some of the same raw ingredients but the flavor combinations are far more creative and exotic, peppercorns and dried fruits and so forth and so on.
NNAMDISo there's a lot out there. Alyssa Theodore is co-owner of the Sugar Cube. That's a candy store in old town Alexandria, Va. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDISamira Kawash is the founder of the website CandyProfessor.com. She's the author of the book "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure." She's also a Professor Emerita at Rutgers University. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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