Friday, April 14, 2006

It’s a blast from the past. Literally.

Pop Rocks, the exploding candy that earned a following and urban-legend status — spurred partly by rumors of accidental death — are back.

Not that the crackling confection went anywhere: It’s been around for half a century. To celebrate, Pop Rocks’ manufacturer is tapping into childhood nostalgia just in time for Easter by reissuing in limited edition its very first flavor, cherry, in retro 1970s packaging.

“The brand recognition is huge,” said Steven Style, a New York publicist who is working on the Pop Rocks media campaign. “There have been really literally hundreds of millions of Pop Rocks sold since the inception, but being back on the rise, sales are just exploding — no pun intended.”

The story of Pop Rocks began in 1956, when General Foods research scientist William A. Mitchell was trying to make instant soda by trapping carbon dioxide in pieces of hard candy. The concept didn’t take off, and the recipe was nearly forgotten.

“Nobody could really think of another use for them and the idea was shelved for literally 20 years,” Mr. Style said. “And then somebody was looking at the idea and looked at these capsules and popped them in their mouth.”

The rest is history: Pop Rocks hit stores in 1976.

“I remember when they first became the big thing,” recalled Dana Bradford, 37, a smile quickly erupting as she shopped for Easter candy yesterday at the Target on New Guinea Road in Fairfax.

Mrs. Bradford, a preschool teacher in Fairfax, said her five children are now fans of Pop Rocks. “They love it — they stick it on their tongue and they let it pop and sizzle,” she said, adding that she even used the exploding candy in a science experiment with her preschoolers a few weeks ago.

Smiles aside, the popping candy attracted controversy soon after its debut.

In the mouth, saliva releases the entrapped carbon dioxide — Pop Rocks are gasified with the same agent used in carbonated soft drinks — resulting in a crackling and fizzing sensation. Though the product was cleared by federal health officials, rumors began to surface that mixing the Pop Rocks with carbonated drinks could cause a person’s stomach to explode.

“They were a lot of fun,” said Anne Mader, 34, of Fairfax, as she browsed the candy aisle for her 4-year-old. “Then I remember the story in high school about some kid eating them with soda and dying. So, yeah, I think I stopped eating them.”

The urban legend associated with Pop Rocks centers on the story of “Little Mikey,” the child who at one time was synonymous with Life cereal. Rumor had it that “Mikey” met his demise after he mixed a few bags of Pop Rocks with a soft drink.

Mr. Style stressed that the grown-up cereal celebrity is alive and well.

“That rumor had quite an impact for a while and we know that rumor not to be true,” Mr. Style said.

At the time, however, the buzz was so persistent that General Foods ran full-page ads in dozens of U.S. publications, wrote letters to school principals and sent Mr. Mitchell, the inventor, on the media circuit to dispel the urban legend, according to, a Web site that sells the candy but is not affiliated with the manufacturer.

Eventually, the site says, Pop Rocks were taken off the market in 1983. Two years later, Kraft Foods bought the rights and sold the product as “Action Candy.” Pop Rocks are currently manufactured by Zeta Espacial SA, a candy manufacturer in Barcelona.

Now, the legendary confection has attained cult status, with its trademark bubble letters even appearing on trendy T-shirts. Although the company sells a variety of flavors, it expects the limited-edition cherry packets to sell out by June, said Mr. Style, who declined to discuss sales or financial information for the privately owned company.

“Nostalgia candies are popular,” said Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioner’s Association in Vienna, Va. “Candy is one of the first things you buy, it’s one of your first purchases so you have an attachment to it. It’s an inexpensive pleasure, so it’s kind of something that sticks with you from the time when you’re pretty young.”

Eight-year-old Maura Blanchfield said watermelon is her favorite Pop Rocks flavor.

“Sometimes my friends have the Lunchables that come with Pop Rocks and they don’t like Pop Rocks and they give them to me,” Maura explained. “They taste good, and I like the way they pop in your mouth.”

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