The snack that's shockingly sour

The history and science of Warheads

Welcome to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the oddly intriguing history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks—and today, there’s bonus science. If you like it, please subscribe! There’s a free snack every Wednesday (like this one!) and paid subscribers also get snacks on Monday and Wednesday.


Stock photo by Govinda Valbuena via Pexels / Snack Stack graphic

The basics

A hard candy in assorted fruit flavors. Extremely sour.

The place

The candy is originally from Taiwan; the Warheads brand is American.

The science

In 2016, Wired broke down exactly what’s going on with Warheads. The first slap of sour comes from citric acid, which “yields hydrogen ions that activate the tongue’s sour taste receptors.” A few seconds later, you get the stronger malic acid, which has been encapsulated in hydrogenated palm oil to delay its release—this is the painful part of the Warhead experience. Once that layer is done, it’s back to the citric acid and ascorbic acid, both milder, along with the sweetness of corn syrup and whatever artificial flavoring has been added to convince you that you’re tasting something other than existential agony. Incidentally, a while back, Warheads introduced an especially potent spray version that, according to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, measures “1.6 on the pH scale,” significantly more acidic than most sour candies, which are usually around 3pH, and “only about 0.6 less acidic than battery acid (although pH scales are logarithmic).”

The story

There are a lot of ways to be disgusted, but the way the reaction manifests in our bodies—the physiological response, the facial expression—is remarkably consistent and shared across all cultures. As Rachel Herz documents in her 2012 book That’s Disgusting, “Even people who have been blind since birth make the same face of disgust as everyone else.” That reflexive recoil, in some settings, can hold a certain appeal—a knowledge that we’re challenging our basic instincts, yet still in control—and within that appeal, always, lies a potential product to sell.

This was the marketing pitch for Warheads, one of the first super-sour candies to enter the extreme-candy market, which had started with the extra-hot Atomic Fire Ball in 1954 (whose name was almost certainly inspired by the first hydrogen bomb testing, which happened the same year).

The original version of Warheads was developed in Taiwan in 1975. There’s a long history of sour candies that use some form of acid to achieve a pucker-face reaction—early examples appeared in the 1800s, and Lemonheads became a hit in 1962 with their citric-acid punch—but the new generation, including that Taiwanese candy, offered a bigger wallop of manageable disgust, thanks to the inclusion of malic acid, “one of the sourest edible substances known to humankind.

Warheads arrived in the USA in 1993, courtesy of an Iowa businessman named Peter De Yager, who’d made a fortune on gummy bears and was looking for something more out there, flavor-wise, to compete in the burgeoning extreme-candy category (which also included, for example, DareDevil jawbreakers “that alternated rings of hot and cool flavors”). De Yager traveled to Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, searching for sour candies, before finding what he was looking for in Taiwan.

“It was so sour that most people would take it out of their mouth immediately, throw it in the wastebasket, and almost be angry at you,” he told Wired in 1999. You thought you'd have an enemy for life.” So, you know, perfect for kids. Here was controlled disgust, a quick but manageable thrill, like the initial drop of a rollercoaster. De Yager’s product was an instant success: by 1999, three years after launch, Warheads were a “$40 million brand.” And they’re still going strong these days, with various spin-off products, most of which are targeted to kids—gummy worms, jelly beans, “Ooze Chews,” that horrifying spray—although there’s also at least one, Warheads beer, clearly aimed at elder millennials nostalgic for those early-’90s glory days when Kriss Kross was on the radio and fifth-grade classmates were all abuzz about this new sour candy.

Before we go, let’s briefly note that the product name also continues to evoke that era—the Cold War might have been just over in 1993, but its cultural legacy was still going strong, and Warheads is undeniably of a piece with Atomic Fire Balls and Bomb Pops (the latter of which debuted in 1955). The 1980s may have been the tail end of the Cold War, but they were full of pop-culture references to it, from Rocky IV to professional wrestling and its specific villains to ads for Wendy’s and McDonald’s, which played on stereotypes of the Soviet Union. Warheads was a late and somewhat more subtle entry, to be sure, but it’s hard not to see the candy’s name and its embodiment of extreme flavor—loud, flamboyant, American—as part of that cultural and political moment.

Get it here

Available across the USA, the internet, and wherever sour candy is sold. Here’s a store locator.

Will you like it?

Probably, but bear in mind that it can wreck your tooth enamel and cause canker sores if you eat too much. For real.

Read more

Wired: What's Behind the Burn of Warheads Extreme Sour Hard Candy”

Wired: “Gross National Product”

NPR’s The Salt: “Toxic. Sour. Atomic. Why We Love To Hate Gross Candy”

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