The curious history of gummi worms
...And gummi bears and gummi roadkill and other gummi things
Hello, Snackers. I’ve been hard at work on two different snack-related journalism projects for outlets much larger than Snack Stack—more details soon—so today I have a rerun for you. This post originally ran last autumn.
I never saw any coverage of this in major news outlets—no front-page headlines in the New York Times, no artful spreads in Food & Wine, no Ken Burns specials on PBS—but 2021 marked the fortieth anniversary of the USA’s gummi candy invasion.
For decades, Americans in search of chewy, fruit-flavored candy had to settle for the likes of gumdrops, jellybeans, and Swedish Fish—which, as any connoisseur of sweets can tell you, are not the same as gummies, which have a slightly different, less sticky, more biteable texture. Then, in 1981, gummi bears arrived from Europe and gummi worms were introduced for the very first time. (Yes, Elder Millennials, this means that some of you are older than the seemingly timeless candy of your youth. You are also older than honey-roasted peanuts and ciabatta. Life is fleeting. Choose your stress-snacking preferences wisely.)
Gummi candies had been popular across Europe for since the 1920s, as Bon Appétit detailed in a 2014 investigation of gummi bears. It all began with one Hans Riegel, a candymaker in Bonn, whose name and hometown, abbreviated, became the basis of his company name: Haribo. Riegel came up with the gelatin-based recipe you know and love today, and drew inspiration for its physical shapes from the dancing bears that were a mainstay of circuses. Over the years, the bears’ precise size, shape, and recipe changed, and the product spread across Europe, including to Americans abroad, both tourists and military troops stationed around the continent. They, too, liked the candy and brought it home to share. By the mid-1970s, Bon Appétit reports,
Thanks to German-language teachers in U.S. high schools dispensing gummy bears in classrooms so their students could sample foreign cuisines, and American servicemen bringing gummy souvenirs from overseas for their families, the demand for Gold-Bears in this country was growing.
Seeing an opportunity, Haribo finally started selling their signature Gold-Bears in the USA in 1981, the same year that The American Jelly Belly Company, following the same market trends, debuted its own gummi bears. Meanwhile, Trolli—another German candymaker, founded in 1975 and best known for its peach rings—also entered the American market in 1981, introducing a product called Gummi Squiggles. These were the originally gummi worms.
Clearly, whimsy has always been a part of the gummi candy appeal. With their bright colors and fruit flavors and, you know, sugar, they have an innate appeal for kids and other snackers, and the original bear form built on that sensibility. By mid-1960s, Haribo and other German manufacturers were making gummies in the shape of many kinds of zoo animals.
But, friends, worms are not zoo animals, or at least standard earthworms are not, so there’s a bit more to unpack when it comes to understanding this specific product. What gummi worms offered to American consumers of the 1980s was not whimsy but delight by way of low-risk disgust.
Take a look at this lede from a Wall Street Journal story from 1984:
MINNEAPOLIS -- The most popular item at the three Lincoln Del restaurants here these days is worms. "Gross, aren't they?" says owner Danny Berenberg.
Mr. Berenberg's restaurants also feature corned beef sandwiches and other delicatessen foods, but the lifelike candy worms are becoming a favorite item. "We're selling hundreds of pounds of 'em a week," says Mr. Berenberg. "I know one guy who uses them as his calling card. He's a medical equipment salesman."
Berenberg sold gummi worms for $5.95 a pound, which works out to around $27.63 today, and packaged some of them “in snap-top jars that look as if they belong in a biology lab.”
That is to say: while gummi worms quickly became a mundane staple of candy aisles around the USA—and, anecdotally, they were common enough to feel familiar and not remotely gross to me I was eating them as a kid in the mid-1980s—they began life as a true novelty, with a transgressive appeal that was absolutely a key selling point.
I’ve been trying to figure out why Trolli even thought to launch Squiggles in 1981, rather than starting another more beloved animal: an elephant, a giraffe, a sheep, something. Why a worm? And while I’m still not certain, here’s my best guess: Trolli simply wanted to offer something clearly different from bears and they viewed American consumers as especially open to products that felt “weird” but weren’t actually abnormal in terms of flavors or ingredients. Americans love few things more than an illusion of adventure and boldness (see also pre-dirtied jeans and fake log cabins and covered-wagon trips for tourists).
In any case, the success of gummi worms quickly led to other not-so-cuddly animals being transformed into candy. This included, notably, a gummi rat, which was so popular that in 1986, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, it was a top-selling product of one Chicago-area candy manufacturer, “second in sales only to President Reagan's favorite jelly beans.” Following this trend and connecting the candy dots, it’s likely that this clear success of superficially off-putting, mildly rude sweets set the necessary precedent for early-1990s candies like mouth-dyeing gum and extremely sour candy, which also fell squarely into the category of “treats that will alarm your parents, and not just because of their sugar content.” Again—and I'm fairly certain about this, given the strength if not the number of data points—you can trace the candy evolutionary tree here all the way back to gummi worms. The Origin of the Sweeties.
These days, Trolli and other manufacturers continue to push the weird-but-fun branding established by gummi worms all those years ago. This includes recent marketing for the worms themselves, which has managed get ever more surreal, with one recent ad featuring “a demon-like troll”; it also includes, more interestingly, the endless new forms that gummies have taken. It’s a constant search for novelty, proof that the worms themselves no longer offer a sense of strangeness to consumers. Trolli's most infamous effort was roadkill gummies, which were sold for a while in the early 2000s, until animal-rights advocates got upset.
That said, if you want something that offers the same parent-horrifying attraction as gummi worms did in 1981, perhaps you should try this real product, from the original Haribo company back in Germany. Allow me to translate. It's called Asses … With Ears.
PS—If you want gummi worms that look like real worms, that is absolutely a thing you can purchase, and so is a life-size gummi python that you can drape around your neck like some kind of Willy Wonka-meets-Jumanji horror show.
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