June 24, 2020–Note: This column is not a metaphor for any current situation, nor is the writer responsible for any lesson readers may take away.
M&Ms have always been my favorite candies. So much so that when I was banished overseas for two years, it was one of the American treats I smuggled into the foreign country.
[Read how I lost those M&Ms http://fullhouseproductions.net/ARCHIVE2015/151125MM.html]
That trip happened at a time during “the decade of no red M&Ms.” Because starting in 1976, the makers of M&M candies discontinued putting red candies into their delicious bags of unmelting goodness. Here’s why.
In 1971, the Soviets conducted a study that linked Red Dye No. 2 to malignant tumors in rats.
Because Red Dye was used to color many food products in the U.S., including hot dog casings, frostings, ice cream, condiments, and, yes, candy, the public did what it does best–stirred itself into a frenzy. National media picked up the story, splattering it on covers of magazines and leading TV newscasts. The public demanded that the government do something. In 1976, in “an abundance of caution,” the United States Food & Drug Administration delisted Red Dye No. 2.
Even though the coloring was now banned, parents were convinced that the red M&M’s were killing their children.
For M&M/Mars, there was no recourse. To stop the bleeding of red dye, they were forced to remove all red M&Ms from the U.S. market.
I remember the red purge clearly. This was at the peak of my M&M consuming years. Yes, I kept buying them. Yes, I kept eating them. And yes, they tasted the same–all colors of M&Ms taste exactly the same, people just ascribe different flavors to different hues.
The company added an orange M&M as a palliative. But a bag of M&Ms without the cheery red M’s robbed some of the joy of eating the treat that had comforted me since childhood.
However, I, and America, soldiered on. We consoled ourselves by consuming 100 million M&Ms each day, stuffing our pain in piles of brown, yellow, green, tan–and orange–treats.
Yet the loyal candy consuming public missed its little red tidbits. News started coming out about flaws in the original studies. The FDA could never produce conclusive results that Red Dye No. 2 proved to be carcinogenic in humans. Other countries, even those with stricter food and drug laws, never followed the FDA guidelines banning Red Dye No. 2. M&M/Mars never stopped including the red M&Ms in their candies sold in foreign markets, or even in their other popular domestic brand–Skittles.
By 1987, M&M/Mars was dealing with backlash from consumers demanding to get their red M&Ms back. So after 10 years of wandering in the red-less wilderness, the company reintroduced red M&Ms to the U.S. market.
That’s a pretty telling story on many aspects of our culture–media overreach, public paranoia, corporate control, political intrigue, right? But here’s the rest of the story:
M&M/Mars had never used Red Dye No. 2 to color its candies.
Read that again:
Never. Used. Red. Dye. No. 2.
The entire “ban red M&Ms because they are killing our kids” frenzy was based on nothing. M&M/Mars even announced this at the time. But consumers were in no mood to be logical. So the company pulled the red candies from the color mix, “to avoid consumer confusion.”
Feel free to insert your own ending to this sweet parable.