Pop Rocks still rockin' after 50 years

Tuesday, April 18, 2006
(Photo illustration by Diane L. Wilson)

No, mixing it with soda will not cause your stomach to explode.

In 1983, rumors of the exploding-stomach potential caused Pop Rocks to be taken off the market. Even 50 years after the carbonated candy was invented, that myth occasionally pops up, but Pop Rocks is still going strong.

In 1956, a candy dynasty was started, but it wasn't until 20 years later that it would become so popular.

Through June, Pop Rocks is celebrating its 50th anniversary with limited-edition Original Cherry Pop Rocks in single packs, 3-pack and 18-count display boxes. The distribution is set to run through June of 2006.

"Carbonated Candy" was originally invented in 1956, by a chemist at the General Foods company looking for a way to make instant carbonated soda (think Coke) by somehow trapping carbon dioxide into candy tablets. But when the instant soda experiment didn't turn out, the formula was forgotten and put away. Twenty years later, another chemist came across the formula, reworked it a little, and turned it into Pop Rocks.

The Pop Rocks legacy has reached far and wide, including Southeast Missouri.

"The last time I had them was in sixth grade," said Sam Hahs, an eighth-grader at Immaculate Conception School in Jackson. Even though he hasn't tried the treats in a few years, he remembers them vividly. "My favorite is grape."

Pop Rocks consists of small pieces of hard candy that have been gasified with carbon dioxide, the same gas used in fizzing soft drinks. In the mouth, these small pieces release the entrapped gas to give off a lasting sensation of action as well as unique cracking sounds in anyone's mouth.

Why do Pop Rocks pop?

According to the candy's official Web site, www.poprockscandy.com, Pop Rocks is like other hard candy and the ingredients include sugar, lactose (milk sugar) corn syrup and flavoring. But Pop Rocks are processed with carbon dioxide. The ingredients are heated together and boiled. The hot sugar mixture is mixed with carbon dioxide gas at about 600 PSI. The carbon dioxide gas forms tiny, 600-PSI bubbles in the candy. Once it cools, you release the pressure and the candy shatters, but the pieces still contain the high-pressure bubbles (look at a piece with a magnifying glass to see the bubbles). When you put the candy in your mouth, it melts (just like hard candy) and releases the bubbles with a loud "pop." What you are hearing and feeling is the 600 PSI carbon dioxide gas being released from each bubble.

The big kaboom

Pop Rocks were developed in 1956 by General Foods research scientist William A. Mitchell and introduced to the market in 1975. Tiny air pockets of carbonation (CO2) are released when melted in your mouth and has a mild "crackling" sensation and "popping" noise.

Though Pop Rocks had been thoroughly tested and found innocuous, the exploding candy still startled residents when it was first released, according to the Web site. The Food and Drug Administration arranged a telephone hotline to assure anxious parents that the popping candy would not cause children to choke. Mixing the candy with carbonated drinks would cause the stomach to explode, was the popular buzz.

General Foods was battling "exploded kid" rumors as early as 1979, a mere four years after the product went to market. They took out full-page ads in 45 major publications, wrote some 50,000 letters to school principals around the country, and sent the confection's inventor on the road to explain to all that Pop Rocks generate less gas than half a can of soda and ingesting them could induce nothing worse in the human body than a hearty, non-life-threatening belch. Despite all these measures, the rumors of the urban legend abound even to this day.

Around 1983, enough pressure surfaced that Pop Rocks was taken off the market. What's less known is that Kraft bought the rights to the product from General Foods in 1985 and then marketed it as "Action Candy" through a company named Carbonated Candy.

Emily Hendricks is a student at Southeast Missouri State University.

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