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A Very Sweet History of Candy Being Marketed as a Nutritional Supplement

In recent years, Jelly Belly and their ‘Sports Beans’ have gotten all the press — and lawsuits. But candymakers have been trying to convince the public that they’re more than just a spoonful of sugar for decades

The Holy Grail of nutrition — aside from the fantasy of downing a magical serum and sprouting muscles in every nook and cranny of the body — is the notion that we could eat what is undeniably junk food and have it somehow be to our physical benefit. That elusive desire was clearly targeted by the claim made by Jelly Belly when they first introduced their line of Sports Beans in the early 2000s, and it was a claim they would ultimately be taken to task for when the company was presented with a lawsuit in 2017 for masking its sugar content under the label of “evaporated cane juice.”

Sports Beans, however, were merely the latest in a long line of candy brands that were positioned as either nutritionally beneficial, or performance enhancing. Given the claims and ingredients of Sports Beans, they’re essentially Gatorade repackaged in candy form with the promise of carbohydrates, electrolytes and vitamins B and C (and if you opt for the Extreme Sports Beans, caffeine as well). Of course, once you eliminate the glamorizing of ingredients, you recognize that sugar is a carbohydrate, salt is an electrolyte and that the inclusion of these nutrients was a hurdle that regular Jelly Bellys already cleared.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: What does it mean for a food item to be healthy, and if that food item is somehow aiding your workout, does that automatically make it so? Moreover, can legitimate candy ever survive such an evaluation while still satisfying an average person’s desires and expectations for it?

Why do candy companies trip over themselves to try to position versions of their products as healthy and fitness-friendly anyway?

Well, in the case of Jelly Belly, you can’t fault them for trying to position their jelly beans as supplements considering the value of doing so — after all, supplements are big business these days. They were also far from the first such company to attempt to link fundamentally unhealthy products with elevated health. It’s arguable that the Snickers-Really-Satisfies-You ad campaign is one of the most effective purveyors of that narrative, having posited a sugary, 280-calorie candy bar as an advisable snack solution for satisfying hunger cravings. 

Speaking of Snickers, the brand delved even further into supplement territory in 2008 when it unveiled Snickers Charged, the first candy bar to package 60 milligrams of caffeine with vitamin B and taurine — the chemical stimulant made famous by Red Bull — in a chocolate bar that promised to provide an energy boost to its consumers. Honestly, it’s difficult to decide if this was a legit attempt from Snickers to compete with energy drinks and other energy-giving supplements, or an attempt to mask the post-sugar-rush crash that commonly follows an afternoon spent snacking on candy.

How long have candy companies been trying to make healthy candy?

Candymakers have been pursuing the goal of crafting a healthy form of candy for more than 100 years. Actually, it may be more accurate to surmise that early-20th-century candymakers were nutritionally ignorant and believed that their concoctions were healthy on the basis of one morsel of scientific information they latched onto and raised to an absurdity. For example, in 1908 a Knoxville, Tennessee candy manufacturer advertised its peanut butter fudge as being so profoundly healthy that its customers could eat all they desired and only get healthier during the process based on an extrapolation of the alleged fact that “peanuts are six times more nourishing than steak.”

Not only is that statement patently false, but it’s all dependent upon the precise definition of “nourishing.” If nourishment simply entails caloric density, then peanuts are certainly twice as caloric as steak on an ounce-by-ounce basis. However, consuming five ounces of each substance will land you at more than 800 calories worth of peanuts and 385 calories worth of steak. Only at that point in American history, when people earned an average of 22 cents per hour (the modern equivalent of $6.72), could it have been said that maximizing calories by any means necessary was “healthy.”

Even though a century has passed, things honestly haven’t gotten much better. This pattern played out once more through the Unreal candy brand that was famously launched with promotion from Tom Brady in 2012. The bars can be positioned as healthy on a bar-for-bar basis when compared to a mainstream candy bar like a Snickers because that method of comparison reveals that an Unreal candy bar contains 70 calories while a Snickers bar contains 280. However, on a gram-for-gram basis, the Unreal bar contains 4.7 calories per gram, and the Snickers bar contains 4.9. In essence, when you equalize the sizes of the bars, they’re the same damn thing. It appears like no matter what you do with candy, making it truly healthy would diminish its appeal. 

But don’t Sports Beans claim to improve workouts? That certainly sounds healthy.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way: Jelly Belly’s Sports Beans will not be the difference-making boon to your diet or your workout routine that they’re advertised to be. The study that backs up the brands claims of performance enhancement specifically states that the participating cyclists in a 10-kilometer trial who used jelly beans were able to maintain blood sugar levels at the same levels as the athletes who supplemented with similar types of simple-sugar carbohydrates, which should be expected. 

This doesn’t translate into improved performances over long stretches of supplementation in comparison with other carbohydrate boosters, nor does it mean that tearing open a bag of sporty jelly beans in the middle of a workday, chewing several servings of them and then remaining at your desk to crunch the numbers sent over from the accounting department is in any way healthier for you than not eating jelly beans at all.

Only by way of a comparison between other types of jelly beans can Sports Beans be considered beneficial, and even then, it’s by a razor-thin margin. Are jelly beans healthy for you if they contain eight times the sodium of unenhanced jelly beans, combined with far less vitamin C than you’d accidentally receive from eating a Wendy’s baked potato, and less vitamin B than you’d extract from just half a cup of Frosted Flakes? Only when compared with other jelly beans or other 100-calorie-per-ounce candies. 

Now, is the inherent suggestion that Sports Beans are healthy likely to lure more non-athletes into “supplementing” with them during times when their bodies are ill positioned to burn off the sugar they administer? Highly likely.