The bitter taste of sweet success

'The reason we're so busy is that we're working more than ever refining things we don't need into yet more seductive packages'
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Their mutations, re-inventions and variations have fascinated me for some time. So much thought, so much money, so much ingenuity, so much ­ quite obviously ­ at stake, all in the name of confectionery.

Their mutations, re-inventions and variations have fascinated me for some time. So much thought, so much money, so much ingenuity, so much ­ quite obviously ­ at stake, all in the name of confectionery. Therefore it comes as no surprise to learn that of the 1,462 new lines in snacks that were launched in Britain since September 1999, more than half ­ 858 of them ­ were "treats".

The very latest piece of new and exciting sweetmeat I've noticed is the Aero bar with a white bit in the middle, as opposed to the green bit, the chocolate bit, or the much rarer, perhaps even extinct, orange bit. This triumph of chocolate technology is starring in billboard ads across the country, the advertising budget just part of a huge research and development splurge, and consumer testing effort, that has marked white-centred Aero out as a winner. The expense of all this will presumably be offset by a stampede of chocoholic consumers eager to find out exactly what toothsome spin on that curiously soapy texture the filled-bar gurus will have come up with this time. If it didn't keep working, they wouldn't keep doing it.

What innovation is next ­ packets of Aero bubbles for weight-conscious snackers? Such a development would not be entirely unprecedented. After all, Polo began marketing Polo-Mint Holes a while back, presented inside a large plastic Polo-Mint, alongside other gimcrack variations on the Polo brand.

I suppose we're lucky no small children have choked in their efforts to eat the plastic container. Who could blame them for being confused, when so many other "treats" have been busy making scale jokes. Giant Smarties jostle with Miniature Smarties on the sweet-shop racks, while Giant Rolos force the lucky recipients of the last one in the tube into major calorie decisions.

Then there are the "special editions", released for a limited time only, during which we must gorge on Dark and Gold Mars Bars or Mint Kit-Kats morning, noon and night, because they will be available only for a limited period, and will some day be removed from our lives for ever, or at least until they "return by popular demand".

And, of course, we mustn't forget the renamings ­ Marathon becoming Snickers, Opal Fruits becoming Starburst, Peanut Treats becoming M&Ms ­ all in the cause of corporate streamlining. Once a bite of a chocolate-covered peanut and nougat bar conjured up images of an ancient test of human stamina. Now it promises the sibilant sound of unattractive, cynical laughter.

Once little chocolate-covered balls of the same nut melted in your mouth, not in your hand. Now they wield chainsaws and insert their dead, mutilated, pregnant girlfriends into the trunks of cars. Or maybe not. When the modern-day Keats is writing rap lyrics, and conjuring his name out of confectionery puns, one surely has to wait for the Brodie's Notes before meanings can be confidently unpacked.

What hope, therefore, that we can work out the meanings behind our ever-expanding "treat" lines, especially when there are so many of them? Of course, at root, all these feverish refinements are made in the name of global branding, or market share, and ultimately in the name of profit. But some are also faux nostalgic ­ adding new value to the traditional Polo Mint, or emphasising with an anniversary variation, the long-standing pre-eminence of the Mars Bar.

A Mars a day, we've been told for decade upon decade now, will help us to work, rest and play. But lo! While the Mars goes on for ever, our ability to seek some kind of balance between working, resting and playing, becomes more eroded every day.

A new survey into eating habits published earlier this week by industry analysts Datamonitor suggests that the days of structured mealtimes are coming to a close, with five or six "eating occasions" replacing the traditional three meals a day with "non-intrusive food" products.

These products fall into three categories, says Datamonitor: treat snacks including chocolate and crisps; health snacks such as yoghurts and bottled water; and energy snacks, from caffeine-based drinks to cereal bars. Where Pepperami fits into all this is anyone's guess. One can only assume that it, alongside ready-made meals ­ European market now worth £27bn ­ is a "health snack".

Eating, the survey says, "is no longer a primary activity", an event round which an evening is planned. "With a growing range of tasks and distractions vying for traditional eating time, the daily eating occasion is coming under increasing pressure. The surge in on-the-go consumption demonstrates that consumers are now looking for products that fit smoothly within their hectic, multi-tasking lifestyles."

And, of course, these hectic multi-tasking lifestyles, statistically, must include the purchasing and leafing-through of a dizzying selection of cookery books, the gathering round and watching of hours and hours of food programming on television, and the reading, while munching, of endless food columns and advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Essentially, we're so busy consuming that we don't have the time to eat properly.

Of course, though, the main reason why we're so busy is because more of us than ever are working more than ever, keeping the economy booming as we dream up sweetie innovations and how to advertise them, publish cookery books and work out how to advertise them and generally spend more and more time refining things we don't need into yet more seductive packages that we will desperately, desperately, want nonetheless.

And that's just the affluent. For the poor, this ever-accelerating switch to snack eating is a much more disturbing development. Fast food, sweets and processed meals, as well as the rather more unholy trinity of booze, fags and drugs, have long been part of the vicious circle of poverty, one of the hair-tearing conundrums for social engineers across the nation, which dictates that the less money you have, the more likely you are to spend it on stuff that is bad for you and your family.

The reason for this, of course, is that poverty is tiring and dispiriting, so instant pick-me-ups are always attractive. As the wealth gap remains as intractable as ever, the only consolation one can offer ­ such as it is ­ is that affluence is becoming increasingly tiring and dispiriting as well. There's a sort of equality here, but it's hardly utopian.

The proliferation in particular of all kinds and varieties of confectionery suggests that we all constantly want to give ourselves "treats", rewards for our forbearance as we mess up the life-work balance, thereby perpetuating the advance of a world economy that will surely one day eat itself or its workers or the entire planet in one cunningly bite-sized, yet simultaneously giant, snack.

And all the chocolatey treats displayed in aisles and aisles of supermarket splendour, of course, can be read as a synechdoche for the insanity of the drive for consumer choice, the desperate efforts that are made to appeal to child consumers, and the astounding way in which most consumers will behave like children when they find themselves in a sweet shop, either literal or metaphoric.

Recent exposés, alongside initiatives that bring us ethical chocolate, have, of course, pointed up that all this is desperately ironic in the straightforward as well as the post-modern manner. Child labour, sometimes enslaved, alongside all kinds of other sharp trade-protection practices that aren't supposed to exist in the free market, bring us the raw materials that make our own sedentary population the fattest in Europe. What more is there to say? Just that it's a funny old world, one funny enough to inspire Snickers rather more than Marathons.