Dear Matt: I just finished off a box of saltwater taffy, and I’m wondering — how guilty should I feel? How bad is the taffy? WHAT IS saltwater taffy? Is licorice a contender for the lesser-of-sweet-evils? I've heard that jelly beans are your best bet. — Sugar Freak, downtown
Got to admit, I’m not sure what scale of values we’re using here to rate jelly beans as “better” than saltwater taffy. This is a question of significance only to the truly desperate.
All candy is some combination of sugar, com syrup, dextrose, sucrose, invert sugar, com starch, or molasses. That is—sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, almost-sugar, or sugar. Any individual differences in candies are the result of flavorings, types of sugars used, and how they are cooked and handled after cooking. Only in your dreams are Snickers bars more wholesome than Gummi Bears. In the grand nutritional scheme of things, they’re almost indistinguishable. But if you insist....
Commercial saltwater taffy is corn syrup, sugar, sweetened condensed milk, oil, salt, emulsifier (usually lecithin), and flavorings. One ounce of taffy provides about four percent of your recommended daily allowance of riboflavin. Eat a pound and a half of it, and your vitamin B2 worries are over for the day. There’s virtually no other food value in it. Of course, the vitamin B2 will have cost you about 1700 calories, 2500 mg of sodium, 500 grams of carbohydrates, and 75 grams of fat.
And just who is the wizard who suggested jelly beans as a healthy alternative? Take the milk out of the taffy, substitute starch or gum of some type, and you’ve got jelly beans. And half the riboflavin. And nothing else.
Licorice might be a contender for some sort of fool’s paradise award as “least awful.” Real licorice candy contains less added sugar, but that’s just because licorice is already sweeter than cane sugar. The natural flavoring comes from the roots of the licorice plant, a legume related to peas. If you shred and boil the roots, then evaporate the water, you’re left with a gummy brown paste that’s combined with corn syrup, molasses, starch, and vegetable oil and made into candy. An ounce of licorice may supply two percent of your daily allowance of thiamine, along with riboflavin, but that’s about it.
So does any candy have food value? Aside from candies containing peanuts, how about an ounce of pure milk chocolate — protein, riboflavin, and calcium, four percent each in the RDA department; iron, six percent. It will only cost you 3700 calories and 200 grams of fat to get 100 percent of your daily calcium needs from a pound and a half of chocolate.
As for what saltwater taffy is, it’s mostly an old-time sales gimmick. Taffy has been around for ages, and during the tourist boom in Atlantic City in the 1880s, some entrepreneur came up with the idea of claiming his taffy was made with seawater. Whether it was or not is debatable. Another story goes that one vendor’s supply of taffy was wave-soaked during a storm, and he turned the ruined stock into an instant hit by selling it as saltwater taffy, an Atlantic City original. Contemporary saltwater taffy is made with more salt than other kinds, but otherwise, there’s no difference.
Could your old pal Matt make a suggestion? How about a nice candy apple? Peel off the candy, eat the apple.