Inventing a new candy can be somewhat akin to reinventing the wheel, but when Pop Rocks exploded onto the market in the 70s, they were unlike any confection that preceded them. Word-of-mouth quickly propelled them to the top of the “must have” list among young consumers, and also contributed to one of the most fanciful urban legends of all time. We’ll get to that in a moment but first, let’s take a look back at the origins of this effervescent treat.
Perhaps surprisingly, the patent for the technology behind Pop Rocks dates all the way back to 1956, when General Foods chemist William A. Mitchell discovered a way to trap carbon dioxide bubbles within the confines of hardened candy by applying pressurized gas to the hot candy, then letting it cool. Placing the sweet substance in one’s mouth would start it dissolving, thereby releasing the carbon dioxide. The result was a candy that made an audible crackling noise while playfully tickling the tongue. Kids were undoubtedly going to love the stuff, but it would take another two decades before the confection was ready for market. Finally in 1975, General Foods released two similar products utilizing the fizzy technology – Pop Rocks, which took the form of small pebbles, and a pulverized version called Space Dust. Each were available in three flavors – cherry, grape and orange.
Upon their debut, Pop Rocks proved enormously popular; Space Dust, not so much. The latter quietly disappeared, while Pop Rocks became the candy that every kid was talking about. It wasn’t just adoration though, as rumors of a grizzly death began to travel among those susceptible to such misinformation. As the story went, that cute little kid from the Life cereal commercials named Mikey? Well, he met an early demise after making the unfortunate error of eating Pop Rocks while drinking soda. And it didn’t just make the poor guy sick – the lethal concoction … caused his stomach to explode!
You will be relieved to know that “Mikey” actor John Gilchrist was (and is) doing just fine, and that Pop Rocks were (and are) perfectly safe to consume. A package contains about the same amount of carbon dioxide as a half-can of soda. The rumors, on the other hand, spread like wildfire. The Food and Drug Administration eventually set up a hotline to ensure parents that their kids were safe eating Pop Rocks. Meanwhile, General Foods launched an extensive advertising campaign to dispel the myth, even sending the candy’s inventor on a road tour to calm a weary public. The truth eventually prevailed, but the novelty of the candy was beginning to wear off. In 1983, Pop Rocks were pulled from the market.
Fear not, however, as they have made a well-deserved comeback in recent years. They aren’t as prevalent in you typical candy aisle as they once were, but they’re out there. A number of retro candy companies sell them online as well, in a variety of new flavors. There’s even a Pop Rocks chocolate bar now available. And if you were one of the fortunate to live during the fizzy era, ripping off the top of a packet and pouring a generous helping of Pop Rocks on your tongue is certain to bring back many a happy memory.
Were you a fan of Pop Rocks or Space Dust as a kid? Did you actually believe that poor Mikey did a “pop goes the weasel” reenactment? We’d love to hear all of your memories in our comments section, as we tip the ol’ retro hat to this classic confection.