About TCAW - Subscription Info
December 2001
Vol. 10, No. 12,
pp 28–32.
Today's Chemist at Work
Focus: Process Development


Candy’s a dandy process industry

Steam heat, sugar beets, and acids are keys to today’s $24 billion enterprise.

“Trivial footnotes in history, perhaps, but every brand, every wrapper, every taste, is the touchstone of someone’s childhood. Rolos, Polos, Bubblies, Jubblies, Chix, Twix, Kix, and Kliks—our sweets are as peculiar and joky as our language. As a set of cultural references, they form part of a common past, a source of pride. Sweets, if not the first gift a child receives, are certainly the first things they buy for themselves. Exchanging coin for candy is Lesson One in the Child’s Guide to Consumerism.”

—Nicholas Whittaker, Sweet Talk: The Secret History of Confectionery

opening art
Some say the way to one’s heart is through the stomach, which explains why you can’t go wrong by treating yourself or someone else to a jar of jelly beans or a box of assorted chocolates. Whether to remedy affairs of the heart or just satisfy that sugar fix, Americans buy a lot of candy. In 2000, candy consumption in the United States totaled 7.1 billion pounds and retail sales reached $23.8 billion. Chocolate was by far the biggest seller last year, bringing in $13 billion in retail sales. Nonchocolate candy rang up $7.5 billion, and gum brought in around $2 billion. Even in our current downtrodden economy, the candy industry is thriving, according to Susan Fussell of the National Confectioners Association. “Although candy is considered a luxury item, it’s relatively inexpensive,” says Fussell. “It’s not something that people necessarily cut out of their lives when they’re watching their money.”

Historically, candy has had many jobs, according to Whittaker: “Used for medication, meditation, resuscitation, as dummies, bribes, tokens of love—confectionery had an all-embracing agenda.” Just as there are thousands of kinds of candies and hundreds of candy makers, there are numerous stories that make up candy’s history. Honey was an important element in candy making in ancient times: Egyptians, Arabs, and the Chinese made confections of fruits and nuts candied in honey. In Europe during the Middle Ages, only the wealthy could afford candy because of the high cost of sugar. Boiled sugar candies were popular in England during the 17th century and also later in the American colonies. With the early 19th-century discovery of sugar beet juice as a sweetener, the candy industry flourished and mechanical appliances were designed specifically to make candy. By the mid-19th century, more than 380 American factories were making popular “penny candy”, such as peppermints and lemon drops (see box, “Candy Milestones (or, What’s in a Name?)”.

Sweet making has always been big business in Britain, but by 1956, independent confectioners had been reduced from 10,000 to 580. By 1998, there were about 80 candy makers in Britain, including corporate giants such as Cadbury, Nestle, and Mars. One of Britain’s most famous candy makers, Needler’s, was founded in 1886 when 22-year-old Fred Needler bought an old confectionary operation for £100. His original workforce of one sugar boiler quickly grew; by 1905, Needler’s employed hundreds, many of whom were women.

Fred Needler provided the money and the business sense behind his operation, but it was the sugar boiler who made candy production a success. He would initially heat the sugar to 100 °C until it turned to liquid. Using his finger to gauge the temperature and consistency, he would increase the temperature until the liquid turned to syrup. Gradually, at around 107–110 °C, the syrup became tacky. At 118 °C, it formed a soft ball (perfect for caramels) and at 121 °C a harder ball (perfect for butterscotch). A temperature between 154–160 °C was perfect for hard candy, known as “boiled sweets” at the time (see box, “Rock Candy”).

Before this molten concoction cooled and hardened, it was rolled out in a slab with the help of lard, olive oil, or petroleum jelly. At this stage, coloring and flavoring were added. Some older confectioners would use extracts of chromium, copper, mercury, and arsenic to color candy, until an article in The Lancet in the 1850s declared this practice dangerous. A popular way to make pink was from hydrochlorate of phthalein of diethyl-meta-amidophenol; cherry red came from sodium salt of tetraiodofluorescine. Chlorophyll of spinach might sound unappetizing, but it made a great green.

After the flavors and colors were added, the molten slab was kneaded, folded, and thumped. Then it was rolled into ropes, cut into pieces with oiled scissors (to give the edges a sharp corner), and left to cool. Combining two or more molten batches before they were rolled out into a slab produced various patterns and shapes, including stripes and checkerboards.

Just before Needler set up his confectionery company in England, an enterprising landlord was becoming interested in chicle, the chewy substance from the sapodilla tree used as the principal ingredient in chewing gum and found in the tropical forests of the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, and northern Guatemala. In the 1870s, the Mexican dictator General Antonio de Santa Anna (most famous for his attack on the Alamo), was living in exile in Staten Island. He’d brought along an enormous supply of chicle, which was chewed by many people in Latin America. His American landlord, Tom Adams, added flavor and sugar to the chicle and began selling it as New York Gum No. 1 brand chewing gum. First sold as gumballs, chewing gum was soon sold in flat strips. Adams and his company were a success in the States, but during World War II, U.S. soldiers spread the popularity of chewing gum to the rest of the world.

Candy Science
The chemistry of candy today has come a long way since the days of Fred Needler and his start-up sweet shop. Most sugary confections are made by dissolving sugar in water and boiling it with glucose syrup to concentrate the mixture. This process was originally done in a saucepan on a stove. In today’s confectionery factory, the saucepan has been replaced by the steam-heated pan. Steam heat provides a controllable way of heating food. In addition, a variety of variables are measured during production, including acids, water activity, dew points, boiling points, and pH.

Acids play an important role and perform various functions in the making of confections. They affect the flavors of fruit, peppermint, and cocoa confections. Originally, tartaric acid was the only acid used in sugar confectionery, but today it has been largely replaced by citric acid.

Citric acid (HOOC-CH2-C(OH)(COOH)-CH2-COOH) occurs naturally in lemon juice but is now produced by fermentation through the action of certain molds on sugar syrups or molasses. It is available in anhydrous and monohydrate forms and is odorless, colorless, and dissolves readily in a 50% solution with water and in a 35–40% solution with alcohol (rectified spirits). Citric acid is used in most confectionery as a 50% solution, but with hard candies, the powdered acid is usually used.

Tartaric acid (HOOC-CH(OH)-CH(OH)- COOH) is prepared from potassium hydrogen tartrate (cream of tartar). The pure substance is anhydrous, in the form of colorless crystals, and, like citric acid, it dissolves readily in water. Sixty-percent solutions are generally made with this form of acid. It is soluble in ethyl and isopropyl alcohol. At one time, tartaric acid was used a great deal in confectionery but has been superseded by citric acid (see box, “Snowdrop Cookies”).

Fumaric acid (HOOC-CH=CH-COOH) is an anhydrous crystalline substance only slightly soluble in water. It is used in food as an acidulant, particularly where noncaking properties are required, as in sherbet powders. It is nonhygroscopic and has a pleasant, strongly acidic flavor.

Additional Ingredients
Synthetic flavors.
Flavorists are trained to mix natural and synthetic substances to develop the varied flavors of candy. Synthetic flavors are made from a mix of flavoring substances that produce a given flavor. Flavor research is driven by the desire to find synthetic compounds that produce particular flavors that are chemically stable. Oddly enough, flavor strength is not a primary focus of development, because the prevailing belief is that flavor is primarily perceived through receptors in the nose rather than on the tongue.

A typical synthetic flavor is an exceedingly intricate blend of substances. Compounding flavors is a concoction of chemistry and sensory skills. Most flavorists spend several years learning how to generate flavors.

Sucrose. Sugar confectionery has developed around the properties of one main ingredient—sucrose. Sucrose is slightly atypical as a sugar because it is a nonreducing disaccharide. Its elemental monosaccharides are dextrose and fructose, both of which are reducing sugars. One of the essential properties of sucrose is that its solubility at room temperature is limited to 66%. Because of this characteristic, a sucrose solution is not stable against bacteria or molds.

Sucrose is extracted from either sugar beets or sugar cane. The two sources are comparable, although the trace impurities are dissimilar. The two sources differ also in the area of brown sugar. Cane sugar that has not been completely purified has a pleasing taste and can be used as an ingredient. On the contrary, beet sugar is not acceptable unless it is completely white.

Sucrose Substitutes. Because of issues such as diabetes, obesity, and the continued quest for a healthier diet, candy made with sugar substitutes has been introduced. The ingredients in these confections do not cause a surge of blood sugar when consumed because sucrose is replaced with different ingredients. These sugar substitutes, or polyols, are sorbitol (hydrogenated glucose), maltitol (hydrogenated maltose), lactitol (hydrogenated lactose), and hydrogenated glucose syrup, all of which are derived from hydrogenated enzyme-converted glucose syrups.

Confectioners count on science to develop better-tasting, better-smelling treats. In the United States, confectioners are currently focusing on three key demographic areas: baby boomers, children under the age of 10, and the Latino community. According to Fussell, baby boomers want functional candy, such as chewy candies with vitamin C. Latinos like strong, intense flavors with a hint of the tropical, such as mango. And kids like novelty items—candies that make noise or spin are some examples. “Everyone loves candy,” says Fussell. “Kids like it, and adults like it because it reminds them of their childhood.” (see box, “Candy Trivia”)

Julie L. McDowell and Felicia M. Willis are staff editors of Today’s Chemist at Work. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office, 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

Return to Top
|| Table of Contents

 CASChemPortChemCenterPubs Page