A formal taxonomy of sour candies

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Sour candies, like sexuality and visible color, exist along a spectrum. The categorization is not binary like “chocolate” or “non-chocolate,” nor can it be as neatly assigned as “Mars product” or “Nestle’s rival product.” Rather, when it comes to this most assertive family of candies, sour is in the taste bud of the beholder: What flavors can you detect beyond that initial acidic shockwave? How much of this cloying assault can you physically tolerate? Just how many inopportune molar cavities, if any, make you more or less sensitive to such a bullying confectionery experience?

Most importantly and scientifically of all: Which sour candies are the tastiest and most fun to eat?

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For this last question, I’ve devised a dual-axial assessment. Sour sanding—the industry term for sour sugar that you’ll never want to stop saying aloud—requires a deft and balanced application; too much, and the whole candy quickly goes from a fun tingling sensation to a painful or even burning one, while the sour flavors begin to overpower the candy rather than complementing it. Hence, the four quadrants below:

For me, Quadrant II is quite literally the sweet spot. Quadrant I is where the sour sanding is doing its job, but not necessarily in any way that interests me. Quadrant III is where I start to sweat, and Quadrant IV is where my jaw locks up (truly!) and I want to consult an emergency dentist. These are the candy equivalents of a hot-wing-eating contest: food as a challenge to conquer rather than a respite to enjoy.

And so, my winners:

Airheads Xtremes Bites

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These should probably supplant classic Airheads as the flagship product. They’re beautiful to look at, pleasing to pluck from a bag, and satisfying beyond compare to chew. The sour flavors are more of a topper than a defining feature of this candy, whose bite I’d liken to al dente pasta. Fruity, bright, and only the slightest bit acidic, these make an exciting addition to any purse, messenger bag, or abdominal cavity.

Sour Patch Watermelons

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I’ve said it all before: They’re underrated and they’re delightful. And they come in a larger bag than their Kid counterparts, too—a not-so-subtle message from either the universe or Mondelez International.

Trolli Sour Brite Crawlers

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These worms are an outstanding showcase of duality all around. They’re sour and sweet, tingly and tolerable, and each individual worm is a half-and-half split of flavors (Cherry-Lemon, Strawberry-Grape, and Orange-Lime). Perfectly designed for volume snacking, they’re always gone too soon. If they were even a touch more sour, it might curb their appeal after a handful of worms, and I might actually use the seal on the resealable bag for once. Luckily, it’s never come to that.


The losers:

Warheads

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Sure, these hard candies exist only to be a tear-jerking playground endurance competition, so it’s pointless to imagine a less-sour version. But as the kid who secretly soaked them in water first in order to mollify the punishing experience, I can tell you that there’s not much going on under all that citric acid—in fact, what is going on is actively bad. It’s just too syrupy and dense at the center, a downright waste of space inside the wrapper. Warheads should just cut right to the chase and apply the sour flavor directly to dissolvable tabs like Listerine breath strips (a punishing experience in their own right).

Sour Patch Kids

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Not a moviegoing experience goes by when I don’t still buy them, but surely we all agree that Sour Patch Kids are a lot to work through, especially when we have their softer, more forgiving counterparts, the Watermelons, available to enjoy. The way the sour sanding settles into the grooves of the Kids’ faces is abrasive, and the fruit flavors are muted by the flat, all-consuming sourness. (The French refer to them as Very Bad Kids; I might also have to start doing this.) The only flavor that feels designed to avoid these pitfalls is new-to-the-pack Blue Raspberry; maybe future innovations in sour children will bring similar surprises.

Sour Skittles

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There’s no saving these—they are the worst of the worst, their structure and taste designed for absolutely no one to enjoy. The sour flavoring is not a dusting of sugars, but rather, a hard, crunchy crust that shatters between your molars and sends electric shocks into your nerve endings. They’re hard and unforgiving in their chew, and every moment you spend eating them feels wrong, like you’re doing something every parent and health professional would strongly advise against. (You absolutely are.) The smooth, hard shell of a Skittle means there aren’t many alternative ways to apply sourness, so I understand the dilemma, but cannot remotely support the workaround they’ve found.

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