Ghouls Rule

This year's Halloween candy is a real scream.

October 27, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

It may be wise to have an empty stomach when viewing the booty your costumed children drag home this Sunday.

For among the Tootsie Rolls, bite-sized Hershey bars and bags of M&Ms, there may be a few dubious delectables such as Creepy Peeper chocolate-filled eyeballs, lollipops with bugs encased inside and candy gel that looks like brains.

What's termed the "gross-out factor" is kids' favorite theme for candy, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. And candy with extreme flavors and disgusting imagery - disgusting, at least, to anyone older than 12 - is the fastest-growing segment of America's $25 billion-a-year candy industry.

When asked what's hot this Halloween, Susan Fussell, a spokeswoman for the National Candy Association, dutifully listed glow-in-the-dark packaging for Snickers and Milky Way, tropical tastes such as mango, berry-flavored chewing gum and spicy accents like cayenne pepper. However, Fussell then conceded that this year, as usually happens, "novelty" or outre candy manufacturers have launched the most innovative products. Like Gummi Severed Fingers and Toes and misshapen white pellets called Ghost Poop.

"Kids think it's extremely cool to be the first one in their school to have the newest, grossest candy," she said. "There's also the appeal that parents don't like it."

Therein lies the Great Halloween Candy Mystery. Because children are so enamored of edible insects and candified body parts or bodily functions, why doesn't more of this gore show up in their bags?

"The market, of late, has been leaning toward super-sour, super-colorful, whatever turns your tongue the brightest orange or purple. Kids go crazy for them, yet they're not popular Halloween items," said Mitchell Goetze, vice president of his family's 110-year old, Baltimore-based company, Goetze's Candy, maker of Caramel Creams and Cow Tales.

"Think about it," he said. "Any other time of the year, people are too embarrassed to stroll down the supermarket aisle and toss several pounds of candy into their carts. At Halloween, people purchase candy to give away, sure, but they also buy it for themselves."

So, while this may be the No. 1 selling season for confectionery (easily besting Valentine's Day, Easter and the winter holidays of Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa), a large percentage of what's purchased each October isn't eaten by youngsters, but by Mom and Dad. "And, they buy candies they remember from when they had their first bicycle," Goetze said.

This may help explain why more than 65 percent of American candies have been around for more than 50 years. Indeed, of the 10 best-selling candy brands, most are senior citizens, such as Hershey's Chocolate bar, born in 1894, Oh Henry (1921) and Milky Way (1923). What's more, there hasn't been a new name on the top 10 list for more than three decades.

All this is surprising. Yet, when one takes even a brief look at the history of confection, it becomes clear that candy encourages quite unexpected behavior. How sweet it is, but how wonderfully strange, too.

A candy chronology

Everyone has a sweet tooth, says Susan Borra, executive vice president of the International Food Information Council in Washington, D.C.

"Sugar is an innate taste at birth. It is there to help us survive. Our taste buds learn that bitter things are often poisonous, but sweet tastes aren't," she said. "Not to mention that mother's milk is slightly sweet."

Sugar cravings were a key to humanity's evolutionary survival, scientists surmise, as ripe fruit is easier to digest and better for you, and these have much more sugar than green fruit. Through photosynthesis, in fact, sunlight causes carbon dioxide in chlorophyll to turn into two sugars: glucose and fructose, which then move from the leaves out to other parts of the plant. Prehistoric man probably had his first sweet surprise when blundering on a honeycomb, where bees carry fructose (also known as nectar) after gathering it from flowers.

Apiculture - or, beekeeping - is depicted in the pharaoh's tombs, and Egyptians are considered to be the first candy makers, as they mixed honey with seeds, nuts and fruit.

The world candy comes from the Indian Sanskrit word khanda, which means a piece of sugar. Though we now extract other natural sugars - especially from corn, beets and maple trees - it was in India that people first learned to harvest the juice from sugar cane. "A kind of honey made from reeds," is how Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, described sugar more than two millenniums ago.

Knowledge of sugar-making quickly spread and, eventually, the Moors brought sugar with them when they conquered Spain in the 1000s. At first, most Europeans didn't quite know what to do with sugar. They used it as a spice or to mask the flavor of spoiled foods; they also thought it had medicinal properties and could cure indigestion or make one more sexually potent.

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