The New York Times
October 26, 2010
Is Candy Evil or Just Misunderstood?
By JULIA MOSKIN
FOR Samira Kawash, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, the Jelly Bean Incident provided the spark.
Five years ago, her daughter, then 3, was invited to play at the home of a new friend. At snack time, having noted the presence of sugar (in the form of juice boxes and cookies) in the kitchen, Dr. Kawash, then a Rutgers professor, brought out a few jelly beans.
The mother froze. Her child had never tasted candy, she explained, but perhaps it would be all right just this once. Then the father weighed in from the other room, shouting that that they might as well give the child crack cocaine.
“It was clear to me that there was an irrational equation of candy and danger in that house,” Dr. Kawash said in a recent interview. “And that was irresistible to me.”
From that train of thought, the Candy Professor blog was born http://candyprofessor.com/.
In her writing there, Dr. Kawash dives deep into the American relationship with candy, finding irrational and interesting ideas everywhere. The big idea behind Candy Professor is that candy carries so much moral and ethical baggage that people view it as fundamentally different — in a bad way — from other kinds of food.
“At least candy is honest about what it is,” she said. “It has always been a processed food, eaten for pleasure, with no particular nutritional benefit.” Today, she said, every aisle in the supermarket contains highly manipulated products that have those qualities.
And, she points out, many people who avoid candy will cheerfully eat sugar-packed chocolate-chip energy bars and drink Gatorade for health reasons, although a serving of Gatorade contains about the same amount of sugar as a dozen pieces of candy corn. Dr. Kawash’s expertise is in American culture and gender studies, but some nutritionists share her views on the pariah status of candy.
“I don’t think candy is bad for you,” said Rachel Johnson, a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont who was the lead author of the American Heart Association’s comprehensive 2009 review of the scientific literature on sugar and cardiovascular health.
Dr. Johnson said that candy is considered bad because it lacks the “health halo” that hovers over sweet food like granola bars and fruit juice. “Nutritionally there is little difference between a gummy bear and a bite of fruit leather,” she said.
Dr. Johnson also noted that candy provides only 6 percent of the added sugar in the American diet, while sweet drinks and juice supply 46 percent. “There’s reason to believe that sugar in liquid form is actually worse than candy, because it fills you up and displaces healthier food choices,” she said.
Dr. Kawash, who studied architectural theory, narratives of women and medicine, and the imagery of terrorism before she began to write Candy Professor, has complicated feelings about her current specialty. She describes her childhood in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the 1970s as an “endless, and mostly frustrating quest for candy,” restricted to a small weekly indulgence after church on Sundays. Later, she said, binges on gummy bears and spice drops fueled her undergraduate research at Stanford; more recently, she found herself flushing handfuls of candy corn down the toilet to prevent herself from eating “just a few more.”
“Obviously, my own relationship with candy is not totally healthy,” she admits.
Fortunately, some of that passion has now been channeled into research. There are many blogs devoted to tasting, photographing and tracking down obscure types of candy, such as Candy Addict and Candy Blog, but Dr. Kawash’s work is rarely about taste or nostalgia. She is much more interested in untangling the threads of control, danger and temptation that candy has carried since it became widely available in the 1880s.
Until then, most candies — like fudge, brittle and taffy — were homemade, and store-bought hard candies like horehound sticks and peppermints were relatively expensive. But advances in technology enabled sugar to be spun, aerated, softened and flavored in new ways, and sold cheaply. Just like that, candy entered popular culture.
Dr. Kawash notes that candy, like cigarettes, was long advertised as having health benefits. “Eat Tootsie Rolls — The Luscious Candy That Helps Beat Fatigue,” reads one of the many ads she has exhaustively analyzed on her blog. One post is dedicated to the “slippage” between candy and medicine that she has found in a close reading of the history of cough drops — hard candy in a socially acceptable form.
But there have always been what she calls “candy alarmists,” who warned that candy was too stimulating, too soporific, poisoned, or otherwise hazardous. Dangerous candy appears in many fairy tales, a theme continued with the modern public-safety message, “Don’t take candy from strangers,” and in public scares over tampering and contamination. (Dr. Kawash recently detailed how all of this led to the candy wrappers we know today in The Journal of American Culture.)
In the early 20th century, she said — in the absence of any medical evidence — doctors blamed candy for the spread of polio. In the 1970s, refined sugar approached the top of the food counterculture’s list of enemies, spurred by international best sellers like “Sugar Blues” and “Sweet and Dangerous.” Tooth decay was the longtime threat; more recently, the global spread of obesity has prompted fears of the “empty calories” in candy.
Now a tentative cook and a buyer of organic eggs, Dr. Kawash is convinced that candy is often the scapegoat when Americans sense that something is wrong in the food supply. The social critic in her says that corn syrup and the cheap candy produced with it have unhinged our notions of how much candy is too much. At the same time, the historian in her can’t help pointing out that “corn syrup was a wonderful thing for candy.” Its invention in the late 19th century made the commercial production of soft confections like fudge and candy corn possible.
The disruption of traditional agricultural systems — including the presence of corn in so many processed foods — has also dislodged candy from its established place as an occasional treat.
“Candy should not be sold in huge bags at the drugstore,” said Jennifer King, a founder of Liddabit Sweets, a small candy company in Brooklyn that proudly sells candy bars — such as a recreated Snickers — for as much as $6.50. Liddabit products are indulgent but also virtuous: Ms. King and her partner, Liz Gutman, make treats like apple-maple lollipops and spiced caramel chews by hand, from prestigious and often local ingredients. (The honey in the honeycomb candy is gathered from hives in New York City.)
Dr. Kawash says that the fetishization of candy ingredients and the aestheticization of candy — like the color-coordinated candy landscapes now popular at weddings — are relatively new.
“When the moneyed classes indulge in sugar, it’s part of an acceptable leisure activity,” she said, chewing over the significance of high-end candy destinations like Dylan’s Candy Bar.
“But when poor people do the same thing, it’s considered pathological,” she added, citing the current debate over using food stamps to buy soda, candy and other “bad” foods.
Dr. Kawash, 46, retired from teaching in 2009. She said that her increasing interest in candy was making it difficult to fulfill her administrative, teaching and parental responsibilities, and knew that studying the evolution of the shape of the Hershey’s Kiss would never win her respect within the academy.
The blog is not so much a public forum, she said, as a “research trail,” a way of chronicling the hours she now spends reading old issues of Confectioners’ Journal, scanning patent applications, and combing archived phone books to count the number of candy shops in Brooklyn in 1908 (564).
Dr. Kawash says her research is partly fueled by anger toward candy manufacturers who publish inaccurate, often sugarcoated histories of their products. In fact, she says, the home-kitchen inventions of candy-shop owners were often simply copied, stolen or swallowed up by large companies.
“The history of candy, like the history of wars, is always written by the winners,” she said. “We can’t just let that go unchallenged.”