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'Candy' examines our love-hate relationship with sweets (excerpt)

Cover of the book
Cover of the book "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure" by Samira Kawash.

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Americans have a complicated relationship with sweets.

Candy is a source of pleasure and pain, if you consider the problems with obesity in this country. So in advance of Halloween we’ll take a look at the candy complex in the U.S. with Rutgers professor Samira Kawash, author of the book, "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure."

Interview Highlights:

Q: Tell us about "The Jellybean Incident," which you refer to in your book:
"I have one daughter and she is 10 now, but when she was about three we were just starting to experiment with candy a little bit so we were going over to a friend's house and she really wanted to share her jellybeans with her friend. And I asked her friend's mother if that would be alright, if we shared a little jellybean treat.

"Then the dad kind of shoots me this glare and says, 'Well, next thing you know you are going to be giving them crack.' And I thought, 'Well, gee. That seems like a kind of strong reaction.'  But I felt a lot of doubt because I thought, 'Am I a bad mother if I am letting my little 3-year-old have these jellybeans?' 

Q: What do you think is behind this strong adverse reaction to candy?:
"I think that everyone of us carries with us this seed of fear when it comes to candy. When I started exploring what that fear was about, it seems to me that it had a lot of dimensions that were not simply about the substance of the candy because look at those jellybeans. Yeah, they have sugar and they have color, but look at everything else we eat. Except for my farmer's market breakfast, everything else has sugar and color and chemicals. Yet, we seem to pour all of our anxieties about food and all of our worries about food's harm onto to this one little substance. Now, when that happens it is called scapegoating."

Q: So is candy considered a food?
"That is one of the interesting questions that I ended up discovering in the course of my research. Because it turns out that the major project that candy manufacturer's had to accomplish in the first part of the 20th century is to persuade people that is food. Luckily there was a way of thinking about food in nutrition that became popular in the early 20th century that made that very easy and that was the notion that food was simple chemicals and they were proteins, carbohydrates and fats. 

"Candy, too, is mostly carbohydrates and some fats and a little protein from the nuts and the milk and so forth. So candy makers were able to point to the elements of their candy and say, 'You see? This has exactly the same nutrients as other kinds of food and therefore candy is food like those other kinds of food and, in fact, it has benefits.' It is compact, it is inexpensive, it is quick energy and the real flourishing of candy in the era between the first World War and the second World War really was this embrace of candy as a new easy kind of eating that would give you fast energy and keep you going for a new kind of modern living. 

Q: Tell us about the full page ad from 1928 that asked 'Do you eat enough candy?'
"In 1926 it was a scientifically plausible question to be asking. There were critics to be sure, but the U.S. Government had published a very important pamphlet called 'Sugar as food.' And this is an era that is just coming out of the notion of undernourishment and food shortage. There were a lot of these sort of celebrities endorsements of the day where like athletes would talk about how their endurance was enhanced by candy and mountain climbers that talked about how that last push to the top of the mountain was made possible with candy. So there was a real sense that if you wanted to get something done, you needed sugar. And candy was a great way to get your sugar. 

Q: How has marketing for candy played on gender roles?
"It is the case that candy throughout the 20th century has really been associated with different ideas about gender. Going back to the 19th century there was really an idea that candy was for women and children who were sweet and sugar was sweet and candy was kind of a trivial, unimportant sweet thing that did not really matter too much. That really changed in the early 20th century when this new idea of sugar as food for energy became popular and candy was seen as an important source of energy. 

"The first to really introduce candy and embrace candy as energy food was the military, and it was German military experiments with candy as fortification for troops that first broached this notion that candy was good for energy. And so by the time you get to the period between the first and second World War, there is this explosion in candy bars and it is really the golden era of the candy bar. There were over ten thousand different kinds of candy bars introduced in this era."

Q: What do you hand out for Halloween?
"Candy. I mean seriously, do you think there is any kid trick-or-treating who wants anything except candy? And I might feel better if I handed out pretzels, but that is for grown-ups and the kids want the candy. Telling our kids that candy is bad and they cannot have it and they should not have it, it just sets them up to go out and sneak the candy in the bushes with their friends after school. To me, I think it is better to teach our kids to treat candy with respect. To know what it is, to figure out a way to enjoy it sensibly and not to make it into this gigantic, powerful, scary, frightening monster that our culture has sometimes done."

Take Two's Candy Taste-Testing Panel


Excerpt from the book "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure"