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?

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