When Food was Medicine
The medicinal origins of candy and junk food
Licorice. Coca-Cola. Marshmallows. Jell-O. All junk foods that belong in the trash bin, right?
These brands are everywhere, and they’ve been lining store shelves for a long time.
So, how did they gain such prominence if they are so bad for you? Did people pay that much for that many years simply for delicious empty calories?
While their tonic effects might not be apparent today, it turns out that all these famous brands started as medicines.
Today, we’re going to peel off the wrapper and delve into the corruption of candy from medicine to poison at the hands of Big Candy.
In doing so, we will see yet more support for the idea that there is no such thing as bad food, only bad ways of making it.
Tracing Candy’s Medicinal Roots
For many of us, the very mention of candy catapults us into nostalgia.
From rummaging through Christmas stockings for candy canes to fighting over chocolates whilst trick-or-treating, for as long as we can remember, candy has been an indulgent treat to be snuck when the prying eyes of parents were focused elsewhere.
And as we’ve aged and delved further into this whole health thing, it became a guilty pleasure. We’ve all been conditioned to believe that candy is full of ‘empty calories’ and warned against eating too much, lest we get fat.
Now, don’t get me wrong - modern-day, conventional candy is absolute garbage. But, candy is not inherently unhealthy.
Humans have had a sweet tooth since the dawn of time. And candy has played an important medicinal role for millennia. Long before Big Pharma or Big Candy™ existed, the only way to treat mental and physical illness was using completely natural ingredients.
In ancient civilizations, herbalists combined herbs, spices, and botanical extracts with sweeteners like sugar and honey to create potent and palatable remedies.
For instance, in 800 BC, Arabic apothecaries prescribed Turkish delight as a remedy for sore throats. Meanwhile, in 400 BC, the famous Greek physician Hippocrates applauded the potential for licorice to heal stomach ulcers and quench thirst.
The concoction of medicinal candies evolved throughout the Medieval Period until the 18th century. Generations upon generations of healers, pharmacists, and physicians worked to craft the perfect recipes for all manner of remedial lozenges, pastilles, and syrups.
However, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century signaled the beginning of the end for this longstanding tradition.
Cane sugar was more readily available, ‘advancements’ in modern medicine led to the proliferation of pharmaceuticals, and the incentive to reduce production complexity relegated the expertise of herbalism to mere folklore.
But the products were popular, and so they continued to be produced, just without any of the properties that made them valuable in the first place.
Enter Big Candy
At the turn of the 19th century, the advent of major candy companies like Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and Haribo among others (or Big Candy as we like to call them) sparked candy’s reverse metamorphosis of sorts.
In fact, the corruption of candy from medicine to poison at the hands of Big Candy is observable in some of the most recognizable confections of today.
Here are 5 examples:
Chocolate originates from the cacao tree, the seeds of which have been dried, cleaned, and roasted for consumption since around 600 BC when ancient South American civilizations prepared cacao as a ceremonial drink.
Cacao was not only spiritually significant to Mesoamericans, but also medicinally important. Modern research has subsequently confirmed cacao’s capacity to enhance mood, provide a source of antioxidants and magnesium, and even improve cardiovascular function.
After Spanish conquistadors returned to Europe enamored by the medicinal possibilities of cacao, manufacturers set to work in making it widely available. Eventually, this coincided with the substitution of pure, raw cacao with cheaper alternatives, and the addition of milk, sugar, and eventually all manner of poisonous ingredients like soy lecithin and vanillin (synthetic vanilla).
While this did wonders for the top line, it also stripped cacao of its inherent nutritional and medicinal value, depriving the populace of this helpful herbal remedy.
Yes, even the favorite beverage of Walmart Americans was originally formulated as a medicinal beverage.
The prototypical recipe that was developed in 1886 contained extracts from coca leaves and kola nuts, both of which were believed to have mild stimulating properties. So much so that Coca-Cola was initially marketed as a cure for nerve trouble, as well as for upset stomachs, gastric irritability, headaches, and nausea.
However, as the popularity of Coca-Cola grew through the 20th century, its tonic benefits faded into the background and the original formula underwent significant changes. Taste was prioritized over health to create the popular soda that we see on the shelves today.
The modern iteration of Coca-Cola is a toxic concoction of various nefarious ingredients. Not only is high-fructose corn syrup often used in place of regular cane sugar (we will see why this is bad later on), but Coca-Cola contains artificial caramel coloring which has been shown to be potentially carcinogenic.
Licorice (derived from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant) is considered of the world’s oldest herbal remedies. For millennia, it has been revered for its multifaceted therapeutic uses.
For example, Scribonius Largus, a Roman doctor in the 1st century AD, indicated that licorice was a powerful remedy for problems of the voice, and in the 5th century, the Roman physician Marcellus Empiricus suggested the use of licorice to treat gastrointestinal disorders.
Meanwhile, licorice appears throughout the Ayurveda system in India and China as a potent anti-viral ingredient.
But, before you reach for a bag of Twizzlers, it’s worth pointing out that modern licorice is often flavored with aniseed oil, rendering the actual licorice root content almost negligible.
While similar in taste, aniseed oil is derived from the anise plant, which does not carry any of the same health benefits as licorice root. The clue’s in the name - ani-seed oil.
On top of this, most licorice today is made with an array of heinous and unnatural ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and soy lecithin (not to mention the artificial food colorings and preservatives).
Much like licorice, the commercially available marshmallows that can be found in grocery stores today have evolved beyond their initial herbal and therapeutic origins.
Marshmallows aren’t just the name of a fluffy candy. Marsh mallow is actually the name of a medicinal plant from which the candy derives its name. Althaea officinalis, or the marsh mallow plant, has long been venerated for its remedial properties.
In fact, the Latin name Althaea is itself rooted in the Greek ἀλθαίνειν (althainein), which means ‘to heal’. Indeed, in Ancient Greece, the sap of the marshmallow root was combined with honey and used for a variety of medicinal purposes, many of which have also been validated by modern science.
However, in the 19th century, French confectioners modified the traditional marshmallow ‘recipe’, substituting marshmallow root sap with gelatin or egg whites to create the fluffy marshmallows that we know today.
The majority of modern marshmallows that we see in grocery stores are hazardous mixtures of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavorings, and questionably sourced gelatin.
Although gelatin in theory is a good addition, its dubious sourcing makes it less than desirable…
That brings us to Jell-O, whose primary ingredient is gelatin - just pure hydrolized beef or pork collagen, or rather, it should be.
Some of the first documented records of gelatin production date back to 15th century England, when cow hooves were boiled to create a gel. Meanwhile, gelatin’s nutritional value has been recognized as far back as the Napoleonic Wars, when French soldiers ate the stuff as a source of protein during battle.
It is also the most important ingredient in “head cheese”, a mixture of meat suspended in gelatin that is traditionally very popular in northern Europe.
For those of you who aren’t already aware, gelatin is derived from animal-based collagen. The unique amino acid profile of collagen is such that it has long been associated with many health benefits including improvements in osteoarthritis, hair and skin health, and gut health.
But, Jell-O fanatics will be disappointed to hear that the Jell-O of today is a far cry from the collagen-rich gelatins of the Medieval Era.
While modern Jell-O does contain powdered gelatin, the source of this gelatin is problematic to say the least. Most likely, it is made from animal by-products that have been obtained from the mainstream meat industry.
In other words, the stuff is most definitely not grass-fed or pasture-raised, and has likely been stripped of any possible health perks as a result.
Adding insult to injury, the gelatin has been further perverted with artificial flavors, dyes, and sweeteners to create the product we all know today.
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The Corruption of Candy
The above foods certainly have noble origins. But what makes their modern versions the cause obesity, diabetes, and early death?
While Big Candy would have you blame the high sugar content for the associated health risks (so they can sell you non-calorie sweeteners instead), ironically this should be the least of your concerns when reaching for a packet of M&Ms.
Rather, it is the addition of various unpronounceable and nefarious ingredients to much modern candy that has created a digestible Frankenstein that will stop at nothing to wreak havoc on your health.
Here are 4 of the worst culprits:
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
In recent times, HFCS has become the go-to sweetener for Big Candy. Scan the ingredients list of almost any modern candy or soda and you’re likely to find HFCS somewhere in there.
This seemingly benign ingredient has garnered attention recently due to concerns regarding its numerous health risks.
First of all, HFCS is often obtained from GMO corn - a bad way to start if you ask me.
Second, HFCS contains a far higher percentage of fructose compared to regular cane sugar. Unlike glucose, fructose is processed in the liver where excessive amounts can lead to a buildup of unhealthy fats and can eventually result in a plethora of related health issues including fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes.
If you ask me, Big Candy should have stuck with honey, nature’s original sweetener which has long been revered for its healing properties, rather than resorting to metabolism-destroying non calorie sweeteners.
2. Soy Lecithin
If you thought HFCS was bad enough, enter soy lecithin.
Commonly used as an emulsifier in various processed foods, this stuff can often be found in modern day chocolate.
What is an emulsifier, you might ask? A chemical that does nothing other than allow water and fat to mix. Quite a natural endeavor, must be great for us.
Like HFCS, soy lecithin is often produced using GMO crops, specifically soybeans. Worryingly, the chemical extraction process through which soy lecithin is manufactured uses various toxic solvents including hexane, which is also used in the manufacture of varnishes and glue.
And, as we all know, soy is highly estrogenic - the phytoestrogens found in soybeans mimic the role of estrogen in the body, which in turn can contribute to hormonal imbalances.
3. Artificial Colors, Dyes, and Flavors
If you think these sound ambiguous, that’s because they are.
The ominous term conveniently disguises the sinister chemical processes responsible for modern candy’s garishly bright reputation.
While the colours might entice the eyes of children and perhaps the uninformed peckish passerby, the majority of artificial colours are derived from coal tar and are therefore often contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as arsenic and lead.
And artificial flavorings are no better. Most of the time these, they are derived from petroleum, solvents, emulsifiers, and other undisclosed toxins, so you really have no idea what on earth you’re ingesting.
Speaking of fake flavors, that brings us to vanillin.
Sounds like vanilla bean extract, right?
It’s a nice thought, but no.
Vanillin is a cheap, artificial substitute for vanilla extract and is often synthetically manufactured from guaiacol - a petrochemical derived from crude oil or lignin, which is a byproduct of wood pulp.
If that didn't put you off, research has shown that consuming vanillin can trigger allergic reactions, digestive disorders, and migraine headaches.