This is going to end up being about candy, I promise. But let’s start here: I think a lot about this 2013 Slate essay by Matthew Yglesias that tackles the enduring lie at the heart of the infamous Cola Wars. Throughout the 1980s, the Pepsi Challenge put real-life consumers through blindfolded taste tests of both Pepsi and Coca-Cola and asked which the customers preferred. By wide margins, Pepsi was the victor—but Coke continued to outsell Pepsi just the same. Yglesias suggests that this is because “taste tests consist of relatively modest sips, and Americans don’t drink tiny sips of soda. We drink whole cans of soda... And while we want something sweet, we don’t necessarily want that kind of long-term relationship with something too sweet.”
It’s fascinating, this idea that our perception of flavor can change depending on how long we experience that flavor, and it has implications beyond soda. I don’t really drink the stuff, because I save my sugar allotment for another arena in which these findings feel relevant: the candy aisle. (See, I came around to it as promised.) And when it comes to the candies that last the longest—hard candies—some are Pepsis and some are Cokes. The former are momentarily delicious, but overwhelming across the entire duration of a hard candy; the latter are perhaps less flavorful at first, but more tolerable throughout the 5-10 minutes you spend sucking on it. All are delicious; I’m just more likely to tap out on the Pepsis after those first few delicious seconds. The Cokes, meanwhile, won’t leave me reaching for a napkin.
Here are my top 3 in each category.
As we’ve already discussed, it’s fun to suck on a Jolly Rancher until the little remaining sliver is bendable between your teeth—it’s just very difficult to make it through to that point in the first place. Because while the flavors are very hyped for their intensity, it’s that same intensity that makes eating one such a production. There is no mellow flavor profile in the whole bag. Green apple, watermelon, blue raspberry, lemon: They all hit you like a wall, hyper-bright and cloying after a minute or two. Though I won’t deny that the first minute is a memorable one.
The same spicy botanical flavors that make old-timey root beer barrels so much fun to suck on are also their undoing. I’ve never once made it to the finish line; the root bark (or artificial flavors impersonating root bark) turn my mouth numb after a minute or two. Once that happens, there’s really no need to continue consuming sugars I can’t really taste, so into the trash it goes.
Yes, it’s a candy, not a mint. The first two ingredients are sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and the last ingredient is peppermint oil. And it could really stand to contain more of that peppermint oil, because while at first a starlight mint is a pleasant sensation—finally, a minty flavor that doesn’t prioritize intensity!—eventually the sugar becomes all you can really taste. It glops over the rest of the flavor profile and creates an aftertaste that will leave you reaching for…. a mint. Gotta hand it to the peppermint folks for creating what is surely a profitable self-negating flavor loop.
Does the candy-eating public know about Nips? Perhaps due to its brown boxes and tendency to be shelved high above other candies, this staple of my childhood might have flown under the radar for many; at least it doesn’t come up in a lot of online chatter. (Googling “best Nips flavors,” rather than turning up fan rankings, turns up a page on Nestle’s own website. How embarrassing.) But it’s their steady, unadventurous flavor I find so appealing in the first place. The caramel is creamy and mellow, and it rewards your wait with a smooth finish—all the more so if you try one of their “parfait” flavors, which conceal a soft center.
Something I find frustrating is when a candy starts out sour, then grows sweet. I want it all at once, not a two-act production. To that end, the rather unassuming Regal Crown Sour Cherry provides. This hard candy is just the right size and thickness to suck on without growing bored or burdened by it, and the taste dances on the line between sour and sweet, tangy and fruity and pleasant all around. Since it only has one flavor to focus on—cherry—it gives that flavor all it’s got. Truly the Coca-Cola Classic of the candy aisle.
Sometimes it’s all about the mouthfeel, and Life Savers have that essential bit of texture that makes them so much fun to suck on. Their flat, ring shape is not only manageable, but leaves you excited to pop the next one in your mouth when you’re only halfway through the first one. They’ve tried getting fancy with Life Savers over the years, but nothing beats the original lineup in their original form; indeed, Life Savers Gummies cling to market share despite being some of the most unpalatable gummies I’ve ever encountered. But the original product, with its five classic flavors and bumpy raised “LIFE SAVERS” text that’s satisfying in that unplaceable cough drop way, has been around for 85 years, and it’s easy to see why this hard candy stays in the game: it’s just enough and nothing more.
It’s not easy developing a recipe that splits the difference between sweetness and complexity, nor do I expect that everyone wants what I want out of hard candies. The Pepsis of the confectionery world aren’t exactly languishing in obscurity here; many people prefer the pronounced pop of flavor in a Jolly Rancher or the saccharine notes of a peppermint candy. All I want, if I’m being honest with myself, is a candy I can make a ritual out of, one as comforting as it is ongoing.