November 10, 2010
Vol: 17 No: 45

Interview

Sweet tooth

by: Rosette Royale , Assistant Editor

If you've ever been told your youth-filled days of chomping candy caused all your cavities, rejoice: The Candy Professor has a lesson plan that may change your sugar-loving mind

Samira Kawash, the Candy Professor

Photo by: Kristin Ordahl , Contributing Photographer

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Scrumdiddlyumptious. That polysyllabic, nonsensical word, conceived by children’s author Roald Dahl, lodged somewhere in the collective consciousness of several generations of people in the U.S. after seeing the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Something about that tripped-out journey through a chocolate factory—complete with three-course-dinner gum, the Everlasting Gobstopper and a few Oompa-Loompas—spoke to a lot of people. Maybe it was the hallucinogenic tunnel tour led by Gene Wilder. Or maybe it was gazing at so much candy.

After all, we love candy. How much do we love it? On average, each person puts back almost 24 pounds of candy a year, according to U.S. Census data. SweeTarts, Laffy Taffy, peanut butter cups, Dum Dum Pops, Twizzlers. We can’t get enough.

Another person who can’t get enough of the sweet stuff is Samira Kawash, Ph.D. As proof, Kawash, 46, started the blog, candyprofessor.com, where Kawash, professor emerita at Rutgers University, gives candy the critical attention it deserves. Want to know when the American candy industry began? (Back in 1847.) Curious about the substance that makes licorice root so sweet, lending its taste to licorice whips? (Glycyrrhizin, a word that might make Roald Dahl jealous.) What did Frederick Cook, the first U.S. citizen to see the North Pole in 1908, request along with 5,000 gallons of gasoline? (Two barrels of gum drops.) The Candy Professor knows the answers to these queries and more. Which means she’s a source of good information. Not to mention fun.

And she provided both in good measure, during a recent phone conversation. We didn’t chat long—just a hair over 13 minutes—but the Candy Professor provided a good schooling on a multitude of candy-coated issues, touching upon dental visits, the truth about the sugar-hyperactivity link, Halloween and Washington State’s Initiative 1107, which recently overturned the state’s decision to tax, among other things, candy.

So the first question is simple, or maybe it isn’t, but: What is candy?
It’s funny. Some people say candy is like pornography: You know it when you see it. As you experienced in Washington, it turns out the definition of candy is actually quite slippery. We think of candy as a sort of discrete group of things that we eat sort of for pleasure, not for meals, not for nutrition. But when you actually go in the store and say, “This is candy and this is not candy,” it’s not quite so easy to tell the difference.

It seems safe to assume that a lot of people like candy, but why do we like it so much?
A lot of different reasons and it’s hard to untangle them. We know from recent scientific research that we’re born with a taste for sweet and that infants have a very positive response to the taste of sweet. It’s probably not surprising: Sweet is the taste of carbohydrate and we need that carbohydrate to fuel our bodies, so it probably makes sense. Candy is not the only sweet thing we eat, though.

So why do we like candy specifically?
Well it’s an intense form of sweet. But another way of thinking about why we like candy is that we have this whole category of stuff that tastes really good, but that we only eat because it tastes good. We don’t eat it for nutrition, we don’t eat it for sustenance. When we eat candy, we know we’re just eating it because it tastes good and there’s something about that association of candy with pleasure that adds on to and intensifies the sweet response.

You just mentioned Washington and earlier this year, our state legislature decided to tax soda, processed food and candy. Why do you think candy gets a “sin tax”? Is it because it doesn’t really offer us nutrition?
Well, candy has actually been subjected to taxes at different times for the past hundred years. In the 1920s when legislatures wanted to pass a tax on candy, they described it as a luxury, not a necessity. Now this was to pay for the war effort and things like that and there was a certain kind of social attitude that we should make some sacrifices, sacrifice some luxuries. There was a sort of consensus around that. Today, when the Washington legislature talked about taxing candies, they talked about it as a “sin tax,” that there’s something sinful and morally suspect about the way we like candy. I think that’s really interesting, the idea that there’s something really wrong, really evil about candy and the pleasure it gives us. It points to a kind of moralism in our society.

Well candy gets a bad rap because candy is usually associated with sugar and lots of sugar is bad. You go to the dentist.
You want my opinion as to whether it’s really bad or not?

Sure, if you want to say.
Number one: There’s sugar in all kinds of things, not just in candy, especially today, when so much of our food is highly processed. We have sugar in the most unlikely places: There’s sugar in your chicken nuggets. So it’s not like cutting out candy is going to cut out the sugar.

But a lot of the beliefs we have about what’s harmful about candy are actually not really true, for example, the thing about candy causing cavities because it has sugar. A dentist who is being honest with you will admit that this is actually not quite right. The acids that develop in your mouth, combined with bacteria, will cause decay to the surfaces of your teeth. But what causes those acids and bacteria, that’s a more complicated thing. A lot of different foods. Yesterday I was eating an animal cracker and it got lodged in my molars for about half an hour. That would definitely create the conditions [for a] cavity, whereas licking on some hard candy for a little while and then being finished with it, maybe not.

[Laughs.] Wow. You’ve just ruined a lot of adults’ arguments.
I’m sorry. In fact I just posted on my blog a link to some pediatric dentists who did research on candy eating and cavities and they concluded that it really wasn’t how much candy you ate, but how quickly you ate it. If you eat a lot of candy quickly so that it’s in your mouth and then out again, it really doesn’t have such an effect. But if you keep the candy in your mouth over a really long period of time, that’s worse. So it’s not quantity, it’s time.

So we just had Halloween time and that’s the candy explosion.
We call it the candy debauch.

How did Halloween and candy become married in our minds?
In the olden days, like in the 20s and the teens, Halloween was mostly about having parties. There might be some candy at the party but it really was more bobbing for apples and festive fall decorations, things like that. I think that a couple of things happened. One was that candy makers were hoping to sell more candy at Halloween, so they started making some special Halloween candies for these parties. But it wasn’t until trick-or-treating really took off that candy became a central part of Halloween in the 1950s and, increasingly, candy became the preferred treat.

I have a friend, she tries to regulate how much candy her daughter gets ‘cause she says the sugar causes her child to become hyperactive. Does the sugar in candy really have that effect?
You know, there have been many scientific studies and the results do not actually support the conclusion that sugar causes children to become hyperactive. In fact, there are studies that suggest quite the opposite: that sugar causes you to become lethargic and sleepy. That candy causes that sugar high is another myth about candy and what’s interesting to me is the way it makes candy into this kind of amphetamine-like drug. I was at a party this weekend and there was a pi

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Tom Ballard, ND | submitted on 11/17/2010, 9:57am


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