What Makes LifeSavers Different

Okay, okay. The question on your lips after reading the title is “Different from what?” Let’s recall that we’re focusing on history here, so in the evolution of sugar confections, we’re going to see what makes LifeSavers (and other candies of its ilk) different from the pennet type of candies I discussed a few days ago.

Let’s compare and contrast a current representation of the pennet, the peppermint disk –

- to that of a LifeSaver.

The major visual difference between the two (aside from colors, of course) is the translucence of each candy. The LifeSavers appear as if they are more transparent than the peppermint disk. The ingredient that allows that “transparency” to occur is an important one in the history of candy – acid.

Today, companies are more likely to use citric acid in these candies, but back in the 1600′s, citric acid had yet to be isolated to a point to be used as it’s own ingredient. Instead, a confectioner would use one of two ingredients available to them. Lemon juice (which contains citric acid) or tartaric acid.

The question is – why use these additional ingredients in the first place? The answer lies in sugar’s properties. When the sugar is boiled above the ball stage, it will start to grain, becoming unpliable, and thus, unworkable. Older candies, such as pennets, (where the sugar was boiled at the lower temperatures), did not have this problem as such. But raise the temperature (and remember, regulating the heat of a fire was always a tricky affair), and soon the fair amount of money that was invested in the sugar would quickly go to waste.

That is, until someone figured out that adding an acid would do to rather remarkable things. For one, the grain would go away, making the heated blob pliable, and thus easy to manipulate into shapes and molds.

Second, the resulting candy would appear nearly see through, giving a gem-like appearance to the candy.

Finally, the acid would give a very distinct taste to the resulting candy, quite different than the pennet candies that had been flavored with herbs and oils. These new candies would taste nearly fruit like.

Physically what was happening was that the acid (later called a doctor) was preventing the sugar from re-crystallizing. It would solidify, sure. But it would not crystallize. This was a handy thing to have happen.

Now consider the following – here we have, at some time in the middle ages, a confection that not only tasty, but visually stunning. No other product in Europe at the time, had a look as opulent as these fruit drops (as they were later called). Sure, subtleties and marzipan required a fine touch, and both had a manufactured aesthetic about them that was borderline art. But translucent confections were different. As I will discuss in a later post, this would have a distinct affect upon why people bought the candies.

(Note – both pictures here I ganked from elsewhere. The Peppermint disc picture comes from bmb’s Flickr Photostream. The LifeSaver picture comes from Chris Stewart at Beware the Cheese.)