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A Sweet And Sour History Of Our Obsession With Candy

Oct 27, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 10:47 am

Trick-or-treaters demand it. Dentists despise it. Pop musicians have sung odes to it.

Love it or hate it, candy is a cultural fixation — and it isn't going anywhere.

In Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, Samira Kawash plots out the history of candy in America and our complex, ever-changing attitudes toward all things sweet. Kawash, a professor emerita at Rutgers University and the creator of the Candy Professor blog, tells NPR's Rachel Martin that candy, which only accounts for 6 percent of the added sugar in our diets, has gotten a bad rap.

"I think if we look around the supermarket, we see all kinds of foods that are quite similar to candy, with very high sugar contents, with all kinds of artificial colorings and flavorings, encouraging us to associate eating purely with pleasure," says Kawash. "To me, this is very much what candy is. But candy is the one that says, 'Hey, this is a treat. This isn't really food.' Candy never says, 'It's fiber, it's vitamins, it's all-natural, it's good for you!' Candy is honest, and says, 'This is a treat. Look at it as a treat. Enjoy it as a treat.' "

According to Kawash's research, Americans were "candy-crazy" during the first few decades of the 20th century. Ads from the 1920s framed candy as a weight-loss agent, and recipes for healthier foods like lima beans were supplemented with marshmallows.

Kawash says that while our obsession with candy hasn't waned since then, we may be eating even worse. "Today, we're eating a lot of candy, but we're also eating a lot of all kinds of other things — packaged snack cakes and potato chips and sodas and energy bars ... sweetened yogurts, sweetened cereals," she says, calling fruit snacks "candy training pants."

All these other things, she says, "are bringing sort of these empty calories into our diet. So the place of candy has kind of stayed the same, but what's changed has been the way that candy-like foods have entered our diet from morning to night."

When candy first became widely available at corner stores and groceries around the country in the early 20th century, our relationship with sweets began to sour, she says. Lots of people — especially kids — couldn't get enough, but others claimed it contained toxic chemicals and the roots of moral and physical decay. Members of the temperance movement were convinced that candy could turn into alcohol inside the stomach.

"This could be good, because that meant you could eat candy instead of drinking, so candy could be a good substitute for liquor," says Kawash. "Or this could be bad, because it might mean that all those little kids sucking on their lollipops were really boozing it up."

Obviously, we don't think these things anymore, she says, "but in our ambivalence around candy ... we can hear the echoes of this historical anxiety and these worries."

Some candy-eaters, she notes, even couch their love-hate relationship in religious terms.

"I talk to other people, and women especially talk a lot about candy in ... a language of sin and guilt and temptation and the sort of penance of the salad. Like, if you fall into the sin of a Snickers bar at lunchtime, you can do penance with salad at dinner," Kawash says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Halloween is just around the corner. That means, as I'm sure you have noticed, every supermarket, convenience store and gas station across the country is stacked sky-high with candy. Candy, as we all know, is laden with sugar. Sugar is sweet and delicious but it also could be very bad for you. However, Samira Kawash wants to throw out conventional wisdom. She says candy has gotten a bad rap. She is professor emerita at Rutgers University, founder of the popular blog The Candy Professor, and she's got a new book out called "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure." She joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SAMIRA KAWASH: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So, candy not as bad for us as we think?

KAWASH: Well, I think if we look around the supermarket, we see all kinds of foods that are quite similar to candy with very high sugar contents, with all kinds of artificial colorings and flavorings, encouraging us to associate eating purely with pleasure. To me, this is very much what candy is. But candy is the one that says, hey, this is a treat. This isn't really food. Candy never says, you know, it's fiber, it's vitamins, it's all-natural, it's good for you. Candy is honest and says this is a treat, look at it as a treat, enjoy it as a treat.

MARTIN: How did this become a crusade for you?

KAWASH: It seems to me there was a very strong, ambivalent love-hate relationship around candy that was very peculiar to American culture. And as I dug back into history, discovered that as soon as candy became widely available, there were very loud condemnations about its dangers. That it was poison, that it was filled with all kinds of toxic waste and chemicals, that it might cause all kinds of moral and physiological disease and that we...

MARTIN: Really?

KAWASH: Yes. The temperance movement associated candy very strongly with alcohol, and there was a widely embraced notion that candy turned into alcohol inside your stomach. So, this could be good because that meant you could eat candy instead of drinking. So candy could be a good substitute for liquor, or this could be bad because it might mean that all those little kids sucking on their lollipops were really boozing it up.

MARTIN: Yes.

KAWASH: So, you know, we don't think these things anymore, but in our ambivalence around candy and in this highly charged sort of love-hate idea about how dangerous it might really be under that superficial pleasure, I think we can hear the echoes of this historical anxiety and these worries. And my book is about uncovering that history and showing how America's relationship with candy has always been dual - both pleasure and panic.

MARTIN: Favorite candy.

KAWASH: Well, at Halloween time, I eat a lot of candy corn. It's like a once-a-year thing. I just discovered candy corn plus peanuts. Oh my gosh, it's like the inside of a Snickers bar. It's so yummy. I can't believe it. You have to take that bowl away from me 'cause I'll just keep eating it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Samira Kawash. She is the author of a new book called "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure." Samira, thanks so much.

KAWASH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

MARTIN: Happy trick or treating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.