The snack that didn't kill Mikey
On Pop Rocks and urban legends
Hello, Snackers. We’re sending 2021 out with a bang today—or some quiet popping, actually, which feels more fitting for a lackluster year. (I can’t think of any snacks that go “bang,” except maybe something in a Roadrunner cartoon. Does Acme make exploding chip bags? Does Coyote order from Door Dash now? Please discuss.) Point is: POP ROCKS. That’s what we’re talking about today. It’s gonna get weird.
Also: I’m taking next week off (because holidays and also I just need a short break). There will be some reruns of early posts that most of you haven’t read, maybe with some updated content or graphics (or maybe not!), so you’ll still get some interesting stuff in your inbox. Paid subscribers will get one more new post this Friday; regular programming will resume on January 3rd.
William Mitchell was a man who liked to play with his food.
Born in rural Minnesota in 1911, he grew up helping with the harvest—peas, beans, melons, corn, tomatoes. After college, he got into research, working at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Lincoln, Nebraska. The lab exploded, “leaving him with second- and third-degree burns over most of his body,” but the work still appealed to him—indeed, a sort of mad-scientist approach to food research and development became his calling card.
Mitchell developed a tapioca substitute during World War II, when the real stuff was in short supply, and in the following decades, while working for General Foods, he developed some of the most iconic packaged foods of the era, including quick-set Jell-O, Cool Whip, and Tang. When Mitchell died, in 2004, obituaries ran in publications across the country, including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and USA Today. In nearly every case, though, it was one of the last chapters of his career that got the most attention: his invention of Pop Rocks and his years-long efforts to prove to the American public that the candy had not killed a television star or anyone else.
This is the story of how a candy created by accident became a headline-gripping moral panic.
* * *
In 1956, Mitchell was trying to create a sugary substance people could toss into water and to create instant soda. His process involved tinkering with carbon dioxide and hot sugar—mixing them, pressurizing them, just seeing how to get them to interact. Mitchell didn’t quite get he was trying to make, but he did create something else: a candy with “tiny, 600-psi bubbles” of carbon dioxide, which sit there, just hanging out under high pressure, until you put them in your mouth. And then: fireworks. The melting of the sugar releases the pressurized bubbles and they pop and fizz. It feels like sweet sparks flying around your mouth; it’s jarring the first time you try them.
It took a while for General Foods to figure out exactly what to do with this new creation, but in early 1975, it entered the test market of Windsor, Ontario under the brand name Pop Rocks. From the outset, consumers were both enthralled and concerned.
Here’s a letter to The Windsor Star, published February 12, 1975. Please note the barely-contained exasperation at the end of the response.
Luckily for the manufacturer, there were plenty candy-lovers unfazed by miniature mouth-explosions, and they loved Pop Rocks. Local stores ran out of them and a black market emerged, with ads appearing in The Windsor Star classifieds. “If you can’t buy them locally, drop us a line,” read one. “One package 30c, 4 packages for $1.” (The standard price was about 15 cents per package.)
Some residents of Detroit, just across the border, crossed into Canada specifically to buy Pop Rocks—one woman, The Detroit Free Press reported, was making regular trips, “purchasing 60 boxes at a time.” And while the candy presumably wasn’t high on the border officials’ list of things to check for, the candy also wasn’t legal yet because, The Free Press said, “Pop Rocks packages didn’t meet U.S. labeling requirements” because they didn’t list all of the ingredients, which made the product’s special effects all the more mysterious.
At the behest of concerned parents, Canada’s ministry of Consumer and Corporate affairs looked into the recipe and science of Pop Rocks and concluded they were perfectly safe. A single packet had less carbon dioxide than a can of soda, and while the popping was, well, pretty dang odd, “the impact … is much less than the force of biting on regular food items.”
When Pop Rocks finally debuted in the USA—with a few test markets in 1976 followed by nationwide sales in 1977—the same sequence of events played out once again: popularity, concern, governmental assurance. But this time, the fears proved harder to shake, in large part because they came with some extremely dark rumors.
* * *
In my research, I found a few mentions of Pop Rocks in American publications in 1976. Most of them were little Q and A pieces with people asking where to get the Canadian curiosity, but toward the end of the year, there were also some excited product listings in grocery store ads from Montana and Wyoming, where the candy had arrived on shelves.
But the first full-fledged article in the USA about the product, as far as I can tell, was a March 1977 piece from The News Tribune in Tacoma with the headline “Sour rumors fly about new candy.” Pop Rocks had been on sale in the area for one week and already there were unsubstantiated claims of deaths:
For the next three years, this would be the theme of Pop Rocks coverage: they’re popular and they might kill your kid, although the authorities deny it.
It’s hard to overstate how many articles there were like this. We’re talking tons and tons of stories, both those that went out on the wire via the Associated Press or Reuters—appearing in hundreds of newspapers—and locally-reported pieces in countless cities. A brief sampling:
Associated Press, March 1977:
St. Cloud Times, April 1977:
San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times, November 1977:
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1978:
Space Dust, I should note, was a short-lived version powdered version of Pop Rocks. Its quick disappearance from the market was partially due to parental concern that this weird, potentially-sniffable powder sounded kinda like “angel dust.” One mother told the Hackensack Record, “It’s a primer for drugs. My kid doesn’t need another chemical.” Meanwhile, local shopkeepers were selling it as quickly as they could stock it.
In some cases, stores caved to parental pressure and pulled Space Dust and Pop Rocks from the shelves—but Pop Rocks, especially, continued to sell extraordinarily well. They were a trend for college students (along with “photo-facing” which is to say photocopying your face), as plenty of older reporters noted with amusement (kids, amiright). Black market sales in the Dallas area got so competitive the people were paying $1 per package, more than six times the cost in stores. And that St. Cloud Times story from Minnesota said that a local drugstore sold 24,000 packages of Pop Rocks in less than three weeks after their debut. It was the age-old story: a novelty that kids and young adults love and parents hate, in both cases because it’s new and unusual and seems dangerous. The love and the hate fuel each other across entrenched generational battle lines, weird youngsters and stodgy adults forever at odds.
General Foods, for its part, blamed “kids” for starting rumors, even though it was the parents who were sounding the alarms. “If they’re anything like my kids, they like to talk it up,” the company’s spokesman said. “We’re too big an international firm to risk jeopardizing our reputation by marketing anything harmful.” (In this case, that may be true, but it’s not like large corporations have a clear record when it comes to promoting harmful products. Hello there, big tobacco and big oil!)
It bears noting at this point: Pop Rocks really, truly won’t kill you. I mean, technically, if you ate fifty pounds or injected them or crashed into a convoy carrying a thousand cases of them, there are ways they could fizzle and pop you off this mortal coil. But in any normal circumstances: nah. Even when paired with a soda and all of its own carbon dioxide, the stuff might give you atypical burps, but that’s about it, as the show “Mythbusters” demonstrated a while back.
* * *
But the rumors continued and they started to get more specific. In January 1979, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that there was a tale going around the area of “a boy in Pottstown Memorial Medical Center who suffered a ruptured intestine after he swallowed an an entire package of the carbon-dioxide-charged candy and then washed it down with soda.” The paper fact-checked the story and—like every other similar sordid yarn about Pop Rocks—it wasn’t true.
The Inquirer also noted another nearly identical story making the rounds, with the same premise as the first but with a named, well-known victim: Mikey, the kid from the LIFE cereal commercials of the early 1970s. Supposedly he, too, and died from some sort of internal explosion after mixing Pop Rocks and soda. Again, the newspaper fact-checked and found that it was, of course, false. The Inquirer chalked it up to the public love of far-fetched stories about celebrities, comparing it to rumors that the young actor who played Eddie Haskell [in ‘Leave It to Beaver’] had become a porno star.” (Also not true, FWIW.)
But the Mikey story persisted, snowballing, and amplifying the other versions featuring non-celebrities. Quaker Oats, Life’s parent company, assured reporter after reporter that the boy from their ads was alive and well (NB: he’s still very much with us today). So did the FDA. No matter. The rumors kept going. By February 1979, they were so widespread that General Foods took out full-page ads in forty-five (45!!) major newspapers around the USA, with a personal assurance from Pop Rocks inventor William Mitchell.
Look at Bill with those! So wholesome, so grandfatherly. You’d trust him, right? General Mills also sent him on a lecture tour, mailed out out 50,000 pamphlets to school principals, and set up a toll-free number for anyone to call for more information, all in hopes of reassuring parents about a novelty candy. (Incidentally, there were also rumors that Pop Rocks contained spider eggs or were laced with LSD, although neither of these stuck in the public’s mind quite as much as the erupting-stomach one, with its specific victims and vivid imagery.)
When you have to go through all that effort to fight a rumor, it’s clear that something is seriously amiss—and for Pop Rocks, it wasn’t just a matter of public image but also the bottom line. People just weren’t buying them as much. General Foods profits dropped by 24 percent in 1979 and analysts blamed the decline in Pop Rocks sales. General Foods said kids had just gotten bored with the product—the novelty had worn off—although it’s hard not to see at least some impact from the PR calamity of the tales about Mikey, even if they were false. General Foods pulled Pop Rocks from the market in 1980.
* * *
In 1987, a company called Carbonated Candy Ventures bought the rights to Pop Rocks and started producing them again. (Ownership has changed a few times since then, and they’re now made by Zeta Espacial S.A.) The press at the time focused—again—on Mikey and the false stories about his demise. By then, though, enough time had elapsed that it was treated as something of a throwback: Hey, remember that time all those people believed that weird story? Anyway, it was fake and you can buy that candy again.
The rumors themselves have also lived on as a case study in the way erroneous, outlandish information gets disseminated, in sociologist Gary Alan Fine’s book Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends, published in 1993. Fine looked at one particular instance of the Pop Rocks horror story spreading among a Little League team in Minnesota in 1977 (paraphrased here in a 1993 review of Fine’s book in The Orlando Sentinel):
The boys were fascinated and excited by the new candy. One of the less popular boys on the team, trying to get attention, said he had heard of a boy in Montana who suffocated from eating Pop Rocks.
Although several of the boys branded the story-teller a liar, the tale spread. And as it spread, the setting of the legend moved from another state to a nearby neighborhood. When local stores began running out of Pop Rocks because they were so popular, this fueled rumors that the candies were dangerous.
The tale reflects our ambivalence about the effects of modern technology on our lives, Fine said. Although we are impressed by microwaves, computers or Pop Rocks, we are also a little awed by their magic. So we exaggerate their powers, or their dangers, and spread the tales as truth, he said.
But the Little Leaguers liked the Pop Rocks story for a simpler reason - it was neato.
"People want to tell their friends things that will entertain them," Fine said. "And these are entertaining stories to tell, whether on coffee breaks or on the playground."
Fax machines, computers and telephones have helped modern myths spread rapidly. And the mass media, by printing legends, helps them prosper.
(In fact, this very article likely will help spread some myths. Some readers won't remember that we said the stories aren't true. They'll just remember the stories.)
Those last few paragraphs feel especially on-point today, in 2021. Even when attempting to fact-check an outlandish tale, mass media can inadvertently amplify it—salacious stories stick in the mind, often more easily than the boring truth. (See also, for example, fact-checking Donald Trump’s bullshit.)
Cultural critics and researchers and many, many others talk about about the ways that social media silos our views and often helps reaffirm the falsehoods and dangerous perspectives. And that’s true, of course. But it’s also worth observing that this is nothing particularly new. The rumors about the dangers of Pop Rocks seem ridiculous in retrospect, but we’d do well to look around and see the many examples of the exact same events and tall tales playing out around us, in ways both absurd and deadly serious. In a time when the biggest food-adjacent rumor of the day is Pizzagate, the Pop Rocks cultural moment almost seems quaint.
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