On almost every day of the year, Room W471 on the fourth floor of Chicago’s enormous McCormick Place convention center is as unremarkable as any corporate meeting room you might imagine. It is gray. Or perhaps beige. Or is it a dull blue? Never mind. It is the efficient non-identifiable hue of how business gets done in 21st-century America.
But on this day something magical is taking place in Room W471. I have arrived on the eve of the National Confectioners Association’s Sweets & Snacks Expo, and 20 or so of the candy world’s leading tastemakers and buyers have gathered and been tasked with a sugar-spun assignment: to sample dozens of new candies, chocolates and snacks in search of the most innovative new creations. It’s like a fine wine tasting for 9-year-olds.
Wending from table to table, these industry vets chomp on the best new candy America has to offer: Toxic Waste Goop Gum “Oozing with sour slime!”; Tabasco Spicy Chocolate; Butterfinger Peanut Butter Cups; Dubble Bubble Fizzers Fizzing Bubble Gum; Warheads Sour Dippin’ Pucker Packs; Too Tarts Sugar-Free Spray Candy in Gween Apple, Blu Bewwy and Straw Bewwy flavors; birthday-cake-flavored M&Ms; draft-beer-flavored Jelly Belly jelly beans. My reporting would be incomplete if I did not also tell you there is a new candy called Sour Farts.
These are my people, I think as I look around the room. My role here is only as an observer, but I’m allowed to taste to my tongue’s content, and the next two hours are a blissed-out escape from responsibilities, deadlines, grim headlines and anything that matters. My new candy-land colleagues walk about chewing, murmuring, occasionally grimacing. They punch ratings into computer tablets, scoring the marketability, price points and deliciousness of each product.
We take joy where we find it in life, and I’ve almost always found joy in candy. Unwrapping a frozen Charleston Chew, biting into the sweetsalty perfection of a Reese’s peanut butter cup or daintily consuming a handful of unjustly maligned candy corn reaffirms the world’s wonder for me. I seek out candy’s company, near and far. In 1992, I wrote a letter to Cadbury executives in England urging them to make more of their British brands available in the United States. “If we find that enough members of the public share your enthusiasm, you may well find the Cadbury range will be expanded,” they wrote back. Who, I wondered, could possibly not share my enthusiasm?
When the candymakers tell me their product is about fun and pleasure, I not only believe them, I want to be one of them.
And yet America is a nation of scale-busters. Two out of every three of us are overweight. We’re number one with a bullet on the world’s obesity chart, and no one is catching us anytime soon. A sugar-fueled diabetes epidemic looms. Public health advocates long ago took notice of this rising fat and sugar tide and have pushed for changes to stem a health disaster. Soda companies have come under siege; trans-fats were punished into near oblivion. The phrase “high-fructose corn syrup” is now uttered with lip-curling contempt.
As Halloween approaches, a day for which Americans will purchase $2.5 billion in candy and consume 12 bajillion grams of sugar, America’s candymakers insist that they aren’t the problem. They point out that Americans get only 2 percent of their daily calories from candy. They argue that Americans understand that candy is a treat to be eaten in moderation. They state that candy can be a part of a balanced diet. And that may all be true, but the candymakers also sense that sugar is public health enemy No. 1. The health advocates and regulators who went after soda and trans-fats now have candy in their crosshairs.
No one wants a world without candy — a world without candy is no world at all. But advocates say something has to give in the battle between health and choice. And the fate of the growing U.S. candy industry, which went from $25.8 billion in sales in 2003 to almost $34 billion last year, may tell us something about where America is headed in terms of health, regulations and the freedom to choose whatever we want to eat whenever we want to eat it.
The future of food takes shape daily across Washington in the offices of lobbyists, industry regulators, senators, representatives, think tankers, policy analysts and public health advocates. The stakes are high for everyone.
For 15 years, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest , has been pushing hard on the anti-sugar front. She worked with a large coalition to bring about the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which brought vast changes to nutrition requirements at all schools that receive any federal funding.
In addition to improving the standards of food served in schools and increasing fruit and vegetable servings, a portion of the law that went into effect last month required that all candy, sugary drinks and non-nutritional snacks be removed from school cafeterias and vending machines. “By taking candy out of schools we’re saying candy is not an everyday food, and it’s something you should be eating a lot less of,” Wootan says.
By the end of the lobbying process on that bill, the candy industry was aligning with parents and with an overall push toward healthier eating that has been led in no small part by first lady Michelle Obama’s fitness-awareness efforts. For a few advocates, the law didn’t go far enough, but with its passage, the anti-sugar forces had notched their first significant piece of legislation.
Just as schools were shedding candy, a less-noticed effort was taking place at state and local levels. From Seattle to Los Angeles to Chicago to New York to Washington, governments began implementing programs that reduced or eliminated the sale of candy and unhealthy snack food in public buildings.
“Governments are deciding that it really doesn’t make sense for them to have obesity campaigns, which are often high-profile and a big priority, and then you walk into the health department or any public building and they have these vending machines that are chock-full of candy and soda and chips,” Wootan tells me.
In Arlington, county board member Walter Tejada led a multifaceted effort to improve fitness among residents. He insisted that healthy food options be available in all vending machines on county property, and he hopes that will eventually lead to only healthy options.
“This is absolutely an area that governments will have to increasingly address,” Tejada says.
Tejada rattles off obesity and diabetes statistics the way a general spits out enemy troop strengths and locations.
“Pick the sweet and the fatty stuff, live less. Pick the healthy stuff, and you’re likely to live longer.”
And his message for America’s snack and candymakers is equally concise.
“It might mean less sales for the product that they provide, but the writing is on the wall,” he says. “We’ve got a problem, and we have to address it. The candy companies are going to have to reinvent themselves and provide healthy options.”
Wootan senses momentum and doesn’t want to see the sugar-removal effort stop at the boundaries of schools and public buildings. She is preparing a campaign to rid candy and unhealthy snacks from all checkout aisles of grocery and convenience stores. This strategy is borrowed from Great Britain, where earlier this year Tesco, the United Kingdom’s largest supermarket and convenience store chain, announced it would remove all candy at checkouts. Other U.K. chains are doing the same, says Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the London-based Children’s Food Campaign, which led the effort.
Could candy removal work on this side of the Atlantic? Currently, most supermarkets in the United States have one or two checkout lanes where candy is not sold. Those are mostly intended for parents who have small children and don’t want to endure the ruthless negotiating of 4-year-olds with visions of Sour Patch Kids in their heads.
But Wootan isn’t just worried about whiny kids; she’s also thinking about weak-willed grown-ups. “Companies know that at the end of a shop, your willpower is at a very low point, and then they assault you with this huge display of candy, knowing that it will induce impulse buying. Pushing people to buy food that they didn’t want, that is going to harm their health, just doesn’t seem appropriate, given the high rates of obesity.”
Of course, the idea of restricting choice simply because Americans may not want to make a healthy choice is not roundly popular, particularly not with … Americans.
But what is to be done and who should decide? Is America capable of going on a diet and eating healthier without being pushed and prodded and punished to do so?
There’s a clean-cut sameness to the offices of most Washington trade groups. In a button-down town, a lobby shop shouldn’t stand out too much.
Unless you represent candy.
The National Confectioners Association painted its Georgetown offices a blizzard of colors that borrows from every shade of Skittle. Imagine a workplace designed by Willy Wonka. Every piece of art in this brightly lighted office is candy-themed. There’s an American flag fashioned from Tootsie Pop wrappers, Hershey Bar coasters on the tables. There is also a glass-enclosed, climate-controlled candy room where visitors are invited to help themselves from a staggering assortment of the best-known names in American confectionery. Full disclosure: I helped myself. (I couldn’t help myself.)
John Downs took the reins earlier this year as the NCA’s new chief executive. Sitting on a couch in his executive suite across from the candy room, the former Coca-Cola executive sips from a Diet Coke and makes candy’s argument against regulation.
“There is so much negative publicity around sugar,” he says. “So we’ve got to do a better job, obviously, in articulating our case in the role that candy plays in a balanced lifestyle. … I think our message is clear. It’s about balance and moderation.”
“Balance and moderation” is a phrase he will repeat numerous times over the next half-hour, and it is a phrase echoed mantra-like by industry leaders. The health and wellness issue is a sensitive topic, and candymakers have become accustomed to playing defense and occasionally giving ground. When criticized for aiming television advertising at children, most candymakers agreed to pull back. Brands have also created sugar-free offerings and reduced portion sizes.
But candy can change only so much before it stops being candy. And the NCA is pushing back against demands to further limit its marketing or availability to customers. Removing candy from all checkout aisles would be a big blow to the industry.
“The majority of consumers don’t want government to restrict their access to food; they want education around how to consume indulgent foods,” says Alison Bodor, the NCA’s executive vice president. “Even dietitians will say there’s a role for candy in the diet, albeit a small one. And we’re all fine with that. We agree. But removing access or trying to remove choice is an unfortunate outcome, and I think most consumers reject that policy and feel that they can make that decision themselves.”
Mitchell Goetze is an NCA board member and a co-owner of Baltimore’s family-run Goetze’s Candy, which makes Caramel Creams and Cow Tales. As a fifth-generation candymaker, he has seen the industry buffeted by rising manufacturing costs. And as the war on sugar has strengthened, he says, the candy industry has become an easy target. Most candymakers, he points out, are putting nutrition information on the front of packages as well as the back, and they have responded to consumer demands to know more about ingredients. But, he wonders, where does one draw the line between regulation and choice?
“Once an industry or consumers accept that it is illegal to have candy at the front of grocery stores, you know, what is next? And that is the shame of what is going on with these advocacy groups and the public policy and new laws. They’re ... really creating restrictions on choice. And my fear is, where does that stop?”
David Kessler, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to head the Food and Drug Administration in 1990 and was reappointed by President Bill Clinton, is on the phone telling me a story that he’s not especially proud of.
“When I was commissioner we lived in Bethesda, and there was a candy drawer in our house. It was unmonitored. And one of my son’s friends came over one day, looked at the candy drawer and looked at one of my kids and said, “And your dad is commissioner of the FDA?”
He can laugh now at this bit of family lore, but Kessler, who wrote the 2012 book “Your Food Is Fooling You: How Your Brain Is Hijacked by Sugar, Fat and Salt,” is profoundly worried about America’s health. What concerns him is whether parents can protect a generation of children by teaching them to eat right from the beginning. “If you can get a kid to 3 or 4 or 5, where they don’t want this stuff except occasionally, that’s the Holy Grail,” he says.
Kessler emphasizes that the issue is not simply candy. “The issue is that all of our food has been candified,” he says. The issue is “when you make everything into candy, and you load and layer fat, sugar and salt into everything, and then you eat that constantly.”
If that sounds like alarmist hyperbole, consider a 2012 historical study of sugar consumption in America by obesity researchers Stephan Guyenet and Jeremy Landen. By analyzing statistics on diet trends, the pair concluded that in 1900 the average American consumed just over 40 pounds of sugar a year. By 2005 that had increased to just under 100 pounds. By that calculation Americans were eating more than half of their body weight in sugar every year. Diving deeper, the pair determined that in 1822 Americans ate the amount of added sugar in a 12-ounce soda every five days. In 2012, that same amount was consumed every seven hours.
We used to eat only at meals, Kessler says. “What changed? We would occasionally have candy. Now we have the equivalent of candy all the time, and you can’t walk more than 100 feet in any direction from where you are, certainly in any city, and not be affected by some food or food cue.”
Kessler believes that government should focus on education rather than regulation. He supports clearer labeling of ingredients so people know more about what they are consuming. And he thinks government should be a cheerleader for healthy eating rather than a finger-wagger.
“I think the first lady has been pretty much pitch perfect,” he says. “Because she’s tried to do it by example rather than lecturing.”
Government has a role, but what doesn’t work, he insists, is instituting laws to change consumption patterns.
“Having been a regulator, this isn’t about regulation or litigation or legislation. This is really about changing social norms. But let’s not fool ourselves, government is a helpful tool in changing social norms. … What did we really do when it came to smoking? We demonized the product. We changed the social norm.”
M&Ms are a marvel of engineering and taste. Like space exploration, Michael Jackson and the cure for polio, the very existence of M&Ms points to America’s greatness and ingenuity. From my dead hands they will pry not a gun, but a bag of unmelted M&Ms.
So it pains me to use M&Ms as an example, but one ordinary-size packet (1.69 ounces) contains 31 grams of sugar. This year, the World Health Organization recommended that sugar consumption should equal no more than 5 percent of your daily caloric intake. For the average adult, that’s about 25 grams of added sugar per day. The WHO isn’t just worried about the 69 percent of Americans who are overweight or obese. Diabetes and obesity are rapidly becoming a global concern.
My packet of M&Ms already exceeds 25 grams of sugar. If on a day that I eat the M&Ms I also have a 12-ounce Coke (39 grams of sugar), a one-cup bowl of Raisin Bran Crunch (19 grams), one serving of Campbell’s tomato soup (12 grams) and a 6-inch turkey sub from Subway (7 grams), that puts me at 108 grams of sugar, or over 400 percent of the WHO’s daily recommendation . And that’s in 950 calories. So either the WHO’s recommendation is ridiculously low or much of the reason the world is getting so fat — and not just fat, but sick — is that we’re swimming in an ocean of sugar and don’t even realize it.
It’s not easy to make candy seem menacing. Even Wootan, the industry critic, says, “If anyone tried to ban chocolate, I would be the first one up in arms to oppose it.” Candy is simply the visible tip of the sugar iceberg and the easiest place to focus concern about the warped presence that sweetness has assumed in America’s diet. Preaching moderation and exercise hasn’t worked, and the pounds keep accumulating.
Halloween is the marquee date on a candy calendar that celebrates confection at Christmas, Valentine’s and Easter, with weeks-long lead-up times to each holiday. Over 50 years, the celebrations of true love, a day of religious tribute to the dead and the birth and resurrection of Jesus have for many become more identified with candy than with their original designation. That’s a testament to marketing genius and to our national weak spot for sweets.
America is a consumer nation, and choice is ingrained in our national identity. But if eating habits don’t change, public health advocates warn, the projections for America are dire. And sugar will have won the war against a nation that hates to lose at anything.
Joe Heim is an assignment editor on the Magazine.
To see how candy corn is made, watch this video.