Pop Rocks: A Discussion of Children's Culture and Candy Consumption

by Diana Hudak, TF: Amy Young



Pop! Pop! POP!!

Pop rocks debuted on the candy market scene in 1975, and since then have been pleasing children across the nation just itching for fun, flavor, and fizzle in an edible, sugary treat. Anyone who has ever eaten pop rocks knows the crackling sensation, popping noise, and tingling feeling as tiny air pockets of carbonation are released as the hard candy melts.

Pop RocksPop rocks, developed in 1956 by General Food research scientist William A. Mitchell, are made by a patented gasified candy making process. In candy factories, hard candy is made by mixing and heating sugar, corn syrup, water, and flavoring together until the mixture boils and drives off all the water. The pure sugar syrup which is left behind at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit is allowed to cool and becomes hard candy. The gasified pop rock procedure is very similar; the hot sugar mixture is allowed to mix with carbon dioxide gas at about 600 psi, forming tiny 600 psi bubbles in the candy. Once the mixture cools, the pressure is released and the candy shatters, but the pieces still contain the high pressure bubbles. When the pop rock candy melts in the mouth, the CO2 bubbles are released with a loud POP!

Pop rocks are not only a fun, effervescent treat for children, but also provide a window to examine trends in candy consumption, children’s culture, and the significance of the children’s market.

The creation of childhood

While it may seem impossible not to recognize those years of youth when one was free to gobble down candy and soda, horse around with friends, and be playfully mischievous without any real adult culpability, the concept of childhood is relatively new. Before the 17th century, there was no concept of childhood; children were regarded as being at the very bottom of the social scale and therefore unworthy of consideration (Pollock 262). As childhood emerged, children developed distinctive dress, music, games and entertainment, slang, and behaviors. Today, after only a short existence, some education and culture critics believe the boundaries of childhood culture have been blurred. Neil Postman, for example, argues in The Disappearance of Childhood that the media has broken down most of the distinctions between children and adults. I, however, would argue there are still strong distinctions between childhood and adults, and that food, and specifically candy consumption, perpetuates these distinctions and maintains the boundaries of childhood culture.

Why is candy considered children’s food?

Candy in general is deemed children’s food, just as toys in general are labeled for child’s play. Most likely, a person would expect an event intended for children to be a more appropriate venue to serve candy than an event intended for adults. Take, for example, a convention for business executives and an eight-year-old’s birthday party. Certainly, one would predict piñatas and goodie bags filled with candy before one would suspect a senior partner passing around a bowl of chupa-chups.

But surprisingly, adults lead the way in candy consumption. In fact, according to the National Confectioners Association, adults over age 18 consume 65 percent of all candy.

Candy is perceived as food for children in the same way McDonald’s is viewed as a restaurant for children. Yunxiang Yan explains in “McDonald’s in Beijing: The Localization of Americana,” that “McDonald’s localization strategies have centered on children as primary customers” (Watson 62). McDonald’s advertisements target children just as candy marketers focus on children as consumers. Still, even though they may be perceived as children’s food, both candy and McDonald’s encompass a broad selection, and adults consume large percentages of both candy and McDonald’s foods. Within the broader category of candy and of McDonald’s, there are certain distinctions and some foods which belong exclusively to the world of children. For example, a Happy Meal is a child’s order; pop rocks are for the playground.

What differentiates adult and children’s candy?

Candy spans a wide variety of sugary, gooey, fruity, chewy, crystalline, and chocolaty confections, and different categories and types of candy are more suited for and prone to either adult or childhood consumption.

Allison James, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Hull, discusses the differences between adult and children’s candy in her essay “Confections, Concoctions, and Conceptions.” During her studies in England she discovered there is a marked difference between childhood and adult candy, which is expressed linguistically. The terms “kets” and “sweets” are not interchangeable and must not be confused. “Kets are a very distinctive kind of confectionery, belonging exclusively to the world of children” (James 396).

“Kets” are viewed by adults as rotten, rubbish, and low in nutritive value. They have names like “Robots,” and “Supersonic Flyers,” which contrast with the names of adult sweets which more accurately describe the type of candy to be consumed, like “Chocolate Coconut Ice,” and “Liquorice Bon Bons,” for example. While kets are brightly colored, sweets have a more uniform and duller appearance. Kets belong to the public, social world of children; they are perceived as dirty and belong to the “disorderly and inverted world of children” (James 400).

Pop Rocks LaboratoryIn England, pop rocks would be considered kets. They are brightly colored candy, shared among children, and are not just a food, but a toy with entertainment value. Pop rocks, like other kets, are for exploration; children may examine each others tongues and peer into each others’ mouths while the candy is being consumed. An adult would never share his chocolaty tongue while chewing a delicate truffle. For kids, pop rocks are marketed explicitly as for exploration and experimentation, as some varieties are packaged as a pop rocks laboratory, complete with a test tube and instructions for an edible science experiment.

Kets are despised by the adult world, but prized by the child’s world, and it is the consumption of different kinds of confectionery by adults and children which reflects the inherent contradiction between these separate worlds. Allison James claims that “food belongs to the adult world and is symbolic of the adult’s control over children. By disordering and confusing the conceptual categories of the adult world children erect a new boundary over which adults have no authority” (James 400). Kets are seen as dirty and disorderly, and social anthropologist, Mary Douglas (1966) has argued that a corollary of the image of dirt as disordering and anomalous is that it can be associated with power. Children gain power, and thus are able to distance themselves from the adult world and maintain their children’s culture by eating kets which are dirty and condemned by adults.

Why does candy appeal to children?

The power issue aside, one would think that children gobble up candy because it is sweet, but candy doesn’t even have to taste good for children to eat it. Dirt, earwax, booger, and vomit certainly don’t seem like the most delectable flavors, yet jelly beans of these flavors are flying off store shelves and into children’s hands. Popularized by the Harry Potter books and movies, Jelly Belly Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans are perfect examples of kets. What could be considered more disgusting and dirty, and belong only in the realm of childhood than a bean that actually tastes like vomit? For children, consuming candy is not just about pure sugar.

Entertainment and novelty candy.Entertainment and novelty are also major factors which influence a child’s candy selection. While they return to the staples, children love novelty candy, and are always looking for something new they can recommend to their friends (Blalock). Candy manufacturers are aware of the force of children in search of novel and entertaining candy. In 2004, novelty candy generated $237.3 million in sales (Rogers), and in order to tap this market, companies like Cap Candy look for what interests children year to year and what is going on in the culture (Blalock). Cap Candy, a CA-based candy marketing company, strives to “create harmless mischief” for three to eighteen year olds. They sell novelty candies like candy sushi complete with chopsticks (although the candy doesn’t taste like raw fish), Magna Pops (lollipops which really work as magnifiers), and Nibble Notes (edible sheets of candy paper with a food coloring magic marker). Another company, The Order of Merlin, offers Harry Potter candies, including Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans and Fizzing Whizbies. Fizzing Whizbies, or “amazingly loud popping candy” (similar to pop rocks) are advertised as “Just plain weird! They explode in your mouth. If you close your mouth and let them explode against the top of your mouth... it feels like your brains popping. Weird!! Kids will love them. Not recommended for Muggle adults!” These advertisements distinguish this type of novelty candy essentially as “for children only.”

Novelty candy like pop rocks also appeals to children as an edgy product. Novelty candies are weird, and are not meant for adults, therefore making them an exclusively for kids product. But the consumption of pop rocks has been brought to an even higher level, in part by an urban legend. Mikey, the child spokesperson for Life cereal supposedly died from exploding after eating pop rocks and drinking soda. This story, which appeared in the 1998 film Urban Legends, entices children to become an instant Evil Knievel by doing the same thing that supposedly fated Mikey to death. In an interview, Jack Levin, Professor of Sociology and Criminology and director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University, compared eating pop rocks and drinking cola with teenage drug use and peer pressure. Novelty candy like pop rocks can even be taken to the extreme as daring and dangerous.

While many studies have focused on the influence of television on children’s selection of candy and other foods, and on which products children try to persuade their parents to purchase, children’s culture plays a large role in a child’s food selections. Though television impacts children’s culture and consequently their food choices, focusing on television studies alone ignores the real life factor of image and coolness among friends and peers. Impressing friends and schoolmates may be the impetus to try a lollipop with a bug inside, turn one’s tongue green and blue and purple, or be the Evil Knievel who dares to eat pop rocks and drink soda pop, risking explosion. It is unlikely children eat candy for nutritional benefits or because they feel hungry, but rather because it is fun. Candy tastes sweet, is entertaining, and is something they share with their peers. Even if they eat the candy (especially novelty candy) alone, they can still share the experience verbally with friends, recommend their friends try the same candy, or brag about the different types of candy they’ve eaten. Academic papers tend to downplay playground culture, which I think has a significant influence on children’s behavior.

Neil Postman stands by the theme of his book: “American culture is hostile to the idea of childhood” (Postman ix). Yet, he is comforted, even exhilarated, that children are not. Many students had written Postman letters disagreeing with his ideas, calling them “weird” and writing, “I think your essay wasn’t very good.” Postman concludes from these interactions that children themselves are a force in preserving childhood, and that they “not only know there is value in being different from adults, but care that a distinction be made; they know… that something terribly important is lost if that distinction is blurred” (Postman viii). Novelty candy consumption, for instance eating dirt-flavored jelly beans or pop rocks, is one area which preserves and strengthens the child adult distinction.

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