Good enough to eat

Horrible things are happening to sweets. Children are no longer content with chocolate or sherbet dib-dabs. They want to sink their teeth into eyeballs that squirt blood, chew life-size tongues and suck on skulls, chickens and warheads. `Interactive candy' is eating up America. And it's coming to a sweet shop near you

F rankstein and I are eyeballing one another. He wants me to French kiss him and I'm not sure. Maybe it's that left eye popping out of its socket. Or the yellow stitches traversing his upper lip. But if children can do it, so can I. This is a lollipop after all, albeit an unusually ghoulish one.

"Monster Mouth is easy use!" it says on the handle. "Push plunger forward to eject candy tongue." We are nose to nose now. I push. Oh my God, a lurid pink thing has shot out from his plastic face. It is at least three inches long. Do I really have to suck it? I do. We are now in sticky union.

Something weird is happening to sweets. Wander the confectionery shelves of any American supermarket and you may think you have entered The Twilight Zone or the ghost train at the end of the pier. As well as Monster Mouths there are Yuckers, lollipops with spiders, frogs and rubber chickens on the end of their sticks, and Skull Suckers, candy skulls with red liquid oozing from the eye sockets.

They call this "interactive candy" and in this country at least - beware, Britain is not immune - it's spreading down the sweetie shelves like a virus. Some of the sweets, such as the four-inch Sour Tongue, which is the consistency of raw liver, and which, as I write, I am cramming between my teeth - are just plain revolting. Others are more elaborate, like the various battery-charged pops that glow, spin and play music. One kind doesn't just rotate; it also has arms that stick out and flex in a violent chopping action.

The market in the United States for this stuff, also dubbed Xtreme Candy, has doubled every year since 1993. It accounts for about 3 per cent of all candy sales, but it is growing faster than any other category of sweet.

At the last count, there were 17 companies making them. The largest and the pioneer of the species, Cap Candy, has just opened a factory on the outskirts of London. Next month, sweet manufacturers gather in Chicago for the annual American confectioners' convention. Of roughly $10bn (pounds 6.4bn) that Americans spend on sweets each year, about $310m goes on sweets that are also toys. Interactive candy may have a relatively small market share but this is increasing.

One reason for the growth in demand is demographic. There is a so-called "baby boomlet" in America now, with a bulge in the ages six to 15 - exactly those most likely to buy sweets and toys. Some of these products are also being aimed at older teenagers and even adults. My favourite purchase has been the Back Talk Sound Bite lollipop. I say something into the handle and, as I suck the pop, it plays back the message through my teeth. On the packet, it says: "Ages six to for ever."

Selling fastest today - here and in Britain - are spin-offs from the latest Star Wars epic, The Phantom Menace. I have here something called a Darth Maul Saber Stick. A plastic tube, it is filled with bubble-gum pellets that drop from a hole when you twist it. A couple of wrist-flicks, however, and, oops, my goodness, clear red plastic laser-beams are telescoping from its ends. This, it seems, is a must-have item in every American school yard.

We may want to take a nostalgia break here. I still remember the magic of sneaking into the local sweetshop and shelling out for a paper bag of pineapple chunks. For anything more fanciful, I had to rely on the stories of Roald Dahl. But this is the Ritalin age of multiple stimulation. No more three television channels and The Magic Roundabout at tea-time. Children - American children for certain - expect more. A hundred channels, MTV and VH1. McDonald's understood this long ago. Give them burgers, chips, ketchup and a toy. The wonder is, perhaps, that performing candy did not storm the shelves earlier. For decades, it was a domain exclusively occupied by the PEZ, a colourful plastic holder that dispensed pastille bricks.

It was four friends in Virginia who first recognised the market gap. Back in 1987 Ann Schlotter, her husband Bill and their old school pals, Tom and Ann Coleman, were searching for ways to get rich and give up their jobs as Post Office workers. Their moment of inspiration came on Hallowe'en night when Ann spotted children playing trick or treat with glow sticks, plastic tubes filled with liquid, which light up. "We thought, wouldn't it be nice to come up with a neat idea with something like that, a glow stick that was also candy," Ann says. "Children would have both things at the same time."

The rest is confectionery history. The Schlotters and the Colemans arranged for a patent for what they had christened the Glow-Pop, a simple lollipop with a battery and bulb that could be switched on. Then they made contact with a company called OddzOn Toys in California. OddzOn, which has since built Cap Toys, as a free-standing subsidiary company, saw the genius of their vision and the business of making sweets that are also toys was born.

The breakthrough came not with the Glow-Pop but with the Spin-Pop, which was another Schlotter-Coleman idea. This began simply as a lollipop attached to a battery-operated motor that twisted in your mouth. Nowadays, these come in myriad varieties and remain the biggest sellers among interactive sweets. Test-driving the Dolly Lolly, a kitschy pink princess complete with plastic crown and lace skirt, on top of a large pink handle, I press the button and, whirr - I am tongue-twisting with Dolly.

"We were told by everyone that a lollipop costing more than 99 cents (66p) simply would never sell," remembers Tom Prichard, general manager of Cap Candy in California. "Well, that was 63 million sales ago. I guess everyone was wrong." Since the Spin-Pop's launch in 1993, the Schlotter-Coleman quartet has continued to supply inventions to Cap Toys, among them the Monster Mouth.

But what, I ask, is this fascination with all sweets freaky? Why take the innocence out of sweets, when adolescence comes soon enough with the temptations of alcohol and worse?

Mr Prichard comes straight to the point. They like it. "What is gross to adults is cool to kids," he explains. "Johnny and Suzie can gross out on something that makes Mum and Dad say, `Oh, how repulsive'. To them that's great. They like to test out things that their parents don't like but nonetheless accept."

Thereis, though, a fine line that must not be crossed. While companies like Cap Candy have balked at the Skull Suckers and the most gross sweets, nobody is objecting to the likes of Monster Mouths. There have been no calls for restraint from, say, the preacher Pat Robertson. When there is so much else out there which is corrupting, from mind-altering glues to gunfire on film, ghoulish sweets do not register as products requiring government control.

But perhaps something more is going on when it comes to Mega Warheads, a sweet made to blow the roof of your mouth off. Laced with tongue-blistering acids, Warheads are little pastilles that are ultra-sour. Next month, Cap Toys launches a Mega Warhead pop, whose handle will feature the face of Wally Warhead, the sweet's mascot, with lips that pucker in and out to denote taste-bud torture.

The premise that "adults will be appalled" clearly applies to Warheads and to a similar product called Fire Pops, which detonates a cinnamon spice explosion in your mouth. But, says Mr Prichard, it is also about courage. Children buy these sweets to dare one another to stop from spitting them out. Here we have a new behind-the-bike-sheds rite of passage not unlike those first lung-bursting puffs you took on a cigarette just to prove to your friends you could.

So, in the spirit of fearless reporting, I reach for my previously purchased packet of Warheads. First, though, to the blurb on the back. "How Brave Are You?" it asks, above a red-lightning graphic called the Mega Mouth Meter. "Time Warhead remains in your mouth" it goes on. "5 seconds: Stay with it. 15 seconds: Now you can feel the power. 25 seconds: We know you're suffering. 35 seconds: Victory is almost yours. 50 seconds: You made it! You're a Mega Warhead Hero!"

The most popular Warheads are button sized and hard. Flavours include lemon, apple, black cherry and blue raspberry. The first from my packet is apple. Oooof! the taste, put simply, it's just extraordinarily sour, like a fresh lemon, but more intense. My whole body is reacting. I'm drawing in breath as if in pain. I feel a hot flush on my face. Now, about five seconds have passed, the worst seems to be over. Under the first layer, there lurks an almost traditional sweetie. There is, by the way, a definite after-effect to Warheads. After eating about four the centre of my tongue feels numb, as if I have burned it on coffee.

And now for my final challenge, the Fire Pop. I have taken care to acquire the deluxe version, which comes with a mini red plastic canister that I shall now fill with very cold water. It is a toy fire extinguisher, with a lever to press. This is very thoughtful. I am now sucking the little red lolly. Oh my! (More profanity). This is the worst yet. Now my tongue is burning, sweat is forming on my brow. I am lunging for the extinguisher. Swoosh. That was unpleasant - which means my children will love them.

Pineapple chunk anyone?

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?