Jun 21, 2023

The Quest for the Perfect Gummy Candy

For texturally exciting gummies—powder bursts! ultra-chewy!—you have to look outside the United States.

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In the world of gummy candies, Americans have a bit of a reputation. We are known for liking gummies that are especially soft and yielding. In other words, Americans don’t really like to chew.

Haribo, the German company that popularized gummy bears, sells different versions of its classic Goldbears in Germany and the U.S.; the German ones are chewier (and made with fruit juice rather than with artificial flavors). In Japan, where the popular candy company Meiji rates its gummies on a chewiness scale of one to five, the hottest trend is gummies that are off-the-charts chewy at level five plus. “I’m not going to lie. I personally don’t like the level five or six ones,” says Adam Labriny, an American who manages the Japan-based snack-box service TokyoTreat. “It kind of feels like you took a tire and cut off a little piece.”

That Americans prefer softer gummies makes sense if you consider what else Americans like—or rather dislike—eating. The very word chewy is usually “derogatory” when applied to food, points out Cathy Erway, a food writer and the author of cookbooks, including The Food of Taiwan. Elsewhere in the world, though, especially in Asia, chewiness and its nuances are highly prized. Americans are likely familiar with pasta cooked al dente, but chewiness can encompass so much more: Consider the toothsome stickiness of mochi, which is distinct from the slipperiness of grass jelly, which is distinct from the taut bounciness of a fish ball. These types of chewiness are individually obsessed over, even given their own names. In Taiwan, for example, the springy chew of fish balls or boba pearls is known as Q, or QQ when especially Q. “There’s an appreciation for more textures,” Erway says. Chewiness—like crispiness—can add a frisson of excitement to everyday food, so the never-ending task of feeding our body is a little less boring.

The most texturally innovative gummies are coming from Asia too. The technique for making those ultra-chewy Japanese gummies, according to Labriny, was perfected only in the past few years. These gummies are set with extra gelatin and then further dehydrated to give a flavorful, long-lasting, almost rubbery chew. (They’re marketed in Japan to young men as stress relief, with hypermasculine packaging and names such as hagane, or “steel.”)

Extreme chewiness isn’t the only way Asian candymakers are experimenting with texture. “I see a lot of dual textures,” says Courtney LeDrew, a marketing manager at the global food corporation Cargill, which recently conducted a consumer study on gummies. These dual-texture gummies, she says, have hidden crunchy bits or release powder when you bite down. There are also a whole host of gummy and gummy-adjacent candies made from more traditional Asian ingredients that have different chewy textures. During a recent trip to a Japanese grocery store in Manhattan, I picked up snacks made from agar-agar (a soft chew that fractures into surprisingly firm pieces), konjac (“too much like tongue,” per my editor), and nata de coco (gelatinous but almost fibrous).

Scientifically speaking, gummies are gels in which water molecules are suspended in a matrix of proteins or carbohydrates whose specific qualities impart different kinds of chew. What we call “chewiness” is a function of at least two different physical properties. The first is “strain at break,” or how much you have to pull before the material falls apart. A gummy that stretches a lot is “long,” and one that doesn’t is “short.” “It’s a little bit like the difference between bread and cake,” says Gregory Ziegler, a food scientist at Penn State, noting that bread stretches but cake will tear. The second property is “stress at break”: how hard you need to push—or bite—on something before it breaks apart. A “hard” gummy requires a lot of force, whereas a “soft” one requires very little. A long and hard gummy, then, would be very chewy. Tinkering with either quality by picking different gelling ingredients will create different types of chewiness.

Recently, Cargill carried out a gummy-texture study concluding that America has an untapped market for even softer gummies. Most of the top-selling brands, including Haribo’s American gummy bears, are set with some amount of gelatin, an animal protein that gives these candies their chew. (Think: the impressive elasticity of animal skin.) But Cargill found that taste-testers preferred gummies made with pectin, a fiber found in fruit and other plant material. (Think instead: the less impressive elasticity of fruit skin.) “Consumers really like this softer chew,” says LeDrew, which is more reminiscent of gumdrops than classic gummy bears. Last year, in fact, Haribo introduced a new U.S. line of “soft and fluffy” Berry Clouds gummies made with the addition of pectin.

But one subgroup of participants in Cargill’s test preferred the chewy gelatin gummies. Candy companies, LeDrew says, might also cater to segments of the market that are open to different textures. Americans have been developing more adventurous palates—or more adventurous jaw muscles?—as demonstrated by the popularity of Hi-Chews, the gelatin-based Japanese candy that my colleague Amanda Mull likened to “a Starburst that fights back.” LeDrew also points to the recent rise of Nerds Gummy Clusters, a dual-texture confection made of crunchy Nerds candy surrounding a soft gummy center. Launched just three years ago, in 2020, it has already shot up to become the third-most-popular gummy brand in the United States. Taste has long been “the No. 1 driver” in candy sales, she says. But a whole world of unique textures is out there too.