No sugarcoating the bad news

In the beginning, there was candy. It was, well, fattening. It was intended to be fattening. That was the whole point of candy. Or actually, check that. The whole point of candy was to give the mouth and body pleasure and, as an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct, it was fattening.

If you look at the history of candy (as I have done, somewhat obsessively), you will notice that confectioners and their consumers recognized these truths to be self-evident until about a decade ago.

This is when the oxymoronic concept of "diet candy" emerged. Previously, the sugar-free stuff had been marketed primarily to diabetics. All of a sudden you had these perfectly innocent pleasures, such as red vines and Mike & Ike, touting themselves as fat free, along with a flood of faux candy bars advertised variously as diet bars, protein bars, energy bars, and so on.

Candy was, for the first time in its long and sugared history, attempting to deny its very nature by being good for you.

This trend reached its apotheosis with the nationwide introduction this summer of a new line from Hershey called Carb Alternatives.

The industry giant is hoping to cash in on the massive popularity of low-carb diets with slimmed-down versions of three popular products: Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Kit Kat bars, and Hershey's Kisses.

There's no need to belabor the science - these products use artificial sweeteners to reduce the "sugar carbs" in each piece. For the record, I've sampled all three. They taste considerably better than most diet candy. (How's that for damning with faint praise?) But, to my tongue, they still came off as frauds. Chocolate, after all, is nature's most distinctive flavor. It can't be faked, precisely because the tongue and taste buds interact with chocolate so intimately.

Hershey is far from alone in jumping on the low-carb bandwagon. For supporting evidence, consider this year's All-Candy Expo in Chicago. Nearly half of the 500 exhibitors in the main exhibit hall featured products advertised as low-carb.

Perhaps the most distressing example was something called Sinfully Delicious Dessert Bites, little tablets meant to simulate the experience of eating peach cobbler and mocha cappuccino cake.

One of the keynote speakers at the expo was Barry Sears, author of the bestselling diet book "The Zone." Inviting him to address candy execs struck me as a little like inviting John Ashcroft to lecture the American Civil Liberties Union. But so be it. This is life in the Atkins era.

When I asked Steve Forster, the publisher of the industry trade magazine Professional Candy Buyer, how long he felt the low-carb craze would last, he shrugged in disgust. The truth is, the candy industry is facing an image crisis that cuts far deeper than the current hysteria. With Newsweek slapping pictures of obese kids on its cover, and films such as "Supersize Me" taking aim at Ronald McDonald, there's a distinct fear that Willie Wonka will come under fire next.

The British book "Chocolate Busters" has lobbed the first volley, portraying chocolate as only slightly less harmful than cigarettes and accusing confectioners of orchestrating an elaborate cover-up of their products' health risks. It's true enough that chocolate, like any other luxury item, is the byproduct of horrendous global inequalities. But the notion that willing consumers of candy should be cast as victims is laughable. The real problem is that our citizenry eats too much and exercises too little. We move, in essence, from the cubicle to the car seat.

And our consumption of candy isn't just excessive; it can be neurotic. Rather than eating candy in moderate amounts and relishing it, often we stuff our faces in a guilty frenzy to quell loneliness and self-doubt.

The sad irony of the low-carb movement is that it will only feed this cycle. People will wind up eating more of this low-taste junk - "Hey, honey, it's only got one gram of sugar carbs!" - and giving themselves far less pleasure. How very American.

Steve Almond is the author of 'Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.' © Los Angeles Times.

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