When Candy Was Food

When Candy Was Food

We like to think that things have absolute meaning. The reality is that things can have radically different framings over time, especially when different people and groups are incentivised in one way or another. I was struck by a perfect example of this change in framing when reading “Candy,” by Samira Kawash. Candy, not too long ago, was advertised as a wonderful source of nutritious food, a stance behind which was a dangerous mix of commercial incentives and incomplete science. What is even more worrying is the bizzare framing of candy hasn’t gone away, rather it is just more sophisticated than before. Let me explain.

The core ingredient of candy, sugar, was one of the first transoceanic foods. It was originally considered a specialised additive in the Middle Ages; difficult to come by and thus rare and expensive. It was part of the same pantheon of spices that included cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and cardamon. It was considered a delicacy available only to the affluent. Sugar fuelled national competition and was the terrible motivation behind a rapid increase in the transoceanic slave trade. Powerful empires exchanged the lives of people for sugar in plantations that stretched across South America and the West Indies. 

Before sugar, honey had been used as a sweetening agent, medicine and mystical ingredient for thousands of years, its history stretching all the way back to the Egyptians. However, honey does not have the same chemical properties that allow it to be so mallabe a product. It also is slower to produce when compared to sugar, reliant on bees, whereas the volume of sugar can be increased by simply planting more sugar cane. 

The real birth of mass-produced candy came only when the price of sugar fell during the 1700s and 1800s, just as the first Industrial Revolution began to take hold. When falling sugar prices coincided with new steam-driven methods of sweet production, the real drive to market candy to the wider population began. 

Though England had early access to both sugar and machinery, it was the United States that drove the first truly global perception of candy. American manufacturers, advertisers and government bodies (like the United States Department of Agriculture) were all unified in the framing of candy as an excellent food. In 1910, Professor John C. Olsen proposed that, “Any vigorous adult could make a good breakfast on those chocolate creams and peanuts.” 

As the ‘candy as food’ revolution began to pick up momentum, it was aided by post-war framing that placed candy at the same caloric level as other, often more expensive and hard-to-access foods. The science of food and nutrition at the time focused on calories only, thus deeming each calorie consumed from candy to be nutritionally equivalent to that gained from eating a piece of fruit or vegetable. 

The trend continued in the 1970s, when manufacturers attempted to remove the concept of “candy” altogether, framing candy bars as  healthful glasses of milk combined with handfuls of peanuts. Later, it became a breaktime alternative to actual food, with slogans such as “break time, any time” (Kit Kat chocolate wafers) infiltrating the public subconscious. Alternatively, organisations repackaged and marketed the ingredients into other more healthy-sounding foods, such as breakfast cereals. Many of these, espeically those with a sugar content of more than 50%, were essentially candy in another form.  

In the modern era, we know more about the science behind nutrition. We are also now aware of worrying population trends, such as the rise of diabetes, which are most prevalent in nations with the highest sugar consumptions. You would think we would learn. In part we have; the  concept of ‘junk food’ is the modern narrative around candy. This is a social reframing that comes from an awareness in some parts of our culture that candy, no matter the packaging, is empty calories. A sparing treat at best. 

However, ‘junk food’ is still big business, and candy is still being reframed and repositioned. One trend is to continue branding candy as ‘food.’ A great example is the Snickers tagline, ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’, making an association between candy and food without having to make an indefensible claim. A second approach is to hide the concept of candy inside a healthier concept. The Fruit Roll-Ups product produced by General Mills are positioned as a ‘fruit snack,’ which means they can position themselves in the same conceptual space as fruit, even with precious little of the original fruit and fruit fibres inside them. 

All of this forces us to confront an unpleasent truth. Having more accurate knowledge doesn’t guarantee better decisions. Our growing awareness of the difficulties caused by a high sugar diet does not seem to change the continued consumption of candy and candy-like foods by much of the population. Maybe the powerful framing of advertising is enough to override a more logical assessment. Maybe we just have to accept that due to its long history of framing and reframing, candy, for many, will remain ‘food’. 


Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (2001) Food: a History, MacMillan: London.

Flanders, Judith (2006) Consuming Passions, Harper Press: Great Britain. 

Kawash, Samira (2011) Candy, Faber and Faber: New York. 

Candy Crumbs Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

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