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Why We Love The Stinging Pain Of Sour Candy

For some consumers, there's never enough sour powder to satisfy the craving.

I don't like sour candy. Much like seltzer, sour candy hurts me and I don't get its appeal. Like many things other people like that I don't—running, bananas, the musical stylings of Harry Connick Jr.—I'm borderline obsessed with figuring out why and how anyone enjoys these ghastly things. So, this Halloween season, I wish to investigate why people keep reaching for the sour candy when they could have something much sweeter and gentler instead.

The sour flavor profile keeps us coming back

My delicate palate rejects an excess of both spiciness and spices. I'm fine with oatmeal every day for breakfast, but I get that some people like a more intense set of sensory experiences, which sour candy is designed to deliver.


Interestingly, sour candy, while intense, doesn't necessarily mean that its fans are more adventurous eaters in general. My child who eats all of five things adores sour candy; he sits there eating Sour Punch Straws, making a puckered face like he hates them... and then goes for more. He never trades his Sour Patch Kids after the Halloween haul. Sour is a very specific flavor profile, and some people just like to be bombarded by it.

"People love the contrast of the sour with the sweet in candy," says Michael Fisher, Founder & CEO at Rotten, a candy company with a line of sour gummy worms. "When a snack is on the edge of being too sour, I think it has hit the right spot. The sourness causes your mouth to pucker and a twinge on your tongue that only another bite of the snack can fix."


Fisher says that as Rotten was developing its sour candy, focus groups kept asking for more sour. I asked a teenager I know why they eat sour candy even though it's extra painful for them. "I don't always make the best decisions for my body," they said, which is the most astute thing a youth has ever said to me. Then they added, "I just love the taste so much!"

Memories of sour candy fuel consumption of sour candy

Like a snake eating its own tail, some people like sour candy simply because they've always eaten sour candy.

"A lot of people have fond, nostalgic memories of being a kid and eating way too much sour candy and they just want that feeling back," says Fisher, and that definitely tracks for me. When I was in elementary school, it was a "thing" to see if you could stand to eat Warheads hard candy—"the candy of choice for super sour seekers," as the website proclaims. I might not have enjoyed it, but it's a memory inextricably linked to the flavor and even the image of that candy.


The marketing plays a big role, too, of course. Many candy companies use pain, shame, or even mild violence in the naming and promotion of sour products (Sour Punch, Warheads, and Cry Baby, to name a few).

"The combination of a product that is edible and actually delicious but marketed as gross is highly irreverent and taps into some of the childlike humor and nostalgia we're all missing," says Fisher. "There's something incredibly nostalgic about marketing food items as gross. We built Rotten off a love of '90s gross-out culture and wanted to bring back all of these lost references that used to dominate pop culture: Creepy Crawlers, Dr. Dreadful, Nickelodeon Slime, Garbage Pail Kids, etc."

Sour candy is good for you!

In direct contrast with the marketing, it's possible we've evolved our sour proclivities because sour signals something that will bring us good health. In the right balance, we enjoy sour foods such as citrus, which is high in vitamin C, a necessary nutrient. Vitamin C isn't in all sour foods, of course, but all vitamin-C-rich foods are acidic. Most sour candy is fruit flavored, and citric acid is the basis of most candies' sour powder. Plus, as humans developed fermentation, we cultivated a certain taste for sourness along with it.


Sour stuff also makes our mouths water, and four out of five dentists agree that dry mouth is something to be avoided, even if it means having a little something sweet, or chewing gum in order to build up and maintain those mouth-protecting saliva stores. Just be sure to brush your teeth after crushing a pack or two of Sour Punch Straws.