The snack that's ~bloody~ good

A brief history of Hematogen

Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:


Photo from Wikipedia Commons / Sergei Frolov

The basics

A kind of candy/nutritional bar, mostly targeted to kids, fortified with iron and vitamin C, crumbly and very sweet, tastes like “a dry Tootsie roll … with a slight iron-y aftertaste,” contains about 5% cow’s blood.

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The intel

Take a stroll through your local grocery store and you’ll see all kinds of foods that were once touted for their supposed curative properties. Fig Newtons: digestive aid (a reputation its marketing team is still trying to combat). Corn Flakes: a remedy for sexual desire (that link’s a tame cultural history but maybe don’t click if you’re at work). Pomegranate juice: hyped as a cure-all just a few years back (until the FDA stepped in).

Hematogen follows in that grand tradition, as a type of candy/nutrition bar high in iron and vitamins and historically marketed as a tasty supplement for Russian kids with anemia or malnutrition. As Vice discussed a few years back, the roots go back to the late 1800s, when it was part of a broader snack-trend that included Hematopan, a powder with licorice, and a drink called Haemosan. The root word for all of them, you will have noticed, means blood, and Hematogen, the snack bar, typically contains around five percent cow’s blood, although on the list of ingredients, down below sugar and condensed milk, you’ll see it called “black food albumin.”

Blood-enhanced products aren’t exactly unknown in other countries, including Western Europe (hello to black pudding and blood sausage) and the USA, and they used to be more popular, around the turn of the twentieth century. That includes candy like Hematogen. Vice notes, though, that this shifted by the 1920s:

According to food historian Amy Bentley, the candy’s disappearance in the West likely stems from the arc of modernization led by America and the nation’s new obsession with transcending natural products like blood in favor of industrial science and pure chemistry. At the same time, its rise in the USSR was rooted in the top-down Soviet economic system. “It’s possible,” argues Lakhtikova, “that it was a pet project of somebody rather powerful who thought it was a great idea.”

But here’s the thing: because it stuck around in Russia and disappeared in Western Europe and the USA, and because of the whole history between East and West and the Cold War (whose long tail has included some food-related intrigue, like Mikhail Gorbachev making a Pizza Hut ad) … because of all that, Hematogen is often portrayed in American news outlets as weird and exotic. The impression you get is of something like Gushers for Vampires—candy on the outside, a geyser of blood on the inside, horrifying and clothes-staining.

That’s not what this is. It’s a grainy protein bar that happens to have some animal product as one of its secondary ingredients and it’s all mixed in with the rest of the ingredients, never discernible as blood. The reality’s a lot less jarring than the stereotype-enhanced hype.

Anyway, while you can find all kinds of YouTube videos with Oh-So-Brave Americans Trying This Wild Russian Thing, your video for the day is this charming primer on Hematogen from a Russian perspective (“It’s not a big deal!”):

Get it here

A grocery store in Russia or in Russian immigrant communities in the USA and elsewhere, or online at a number of places, including Russian Foods USA ($1.00 for four mini bars or $1.59 for a full-sized bar with pine nuts, among other options).

Will you like it? 


Read more

Do watch that video embedded above. It’s good.

Vice: “How Russia Fell in Love with Candy Bars Made of Blood”

Chowhound: “This Russian Candy Bar Contains Actual Cow Blood”

Want another snack?

Don’t forget to check out the pantry (er, archives) and see what you’ve missed—and, if you’re not a paid subscriber, to see what you’re missing! Recent posts include a Dutch cow udder snack (with a cameo by a charismatic poet), a cotton candy-filled crepe from Thailand (with a seriously captivating “how it’s made” video), and a pollen candy from Iraq’s marshlands (with bonus notes on the region’s floating houses made of reeds).

Happy snacking!