M&Ms are one of the most popular brands of candy out there, with their distinct shape and colors being instantly recognizable internationally. However, one thing that a lot of older candy lovers may recall is the classic red candy disappearing for a few years–10 years to be exact. Now, with the color balance restored, let’s take a closer look at exactly what happened. Why did M&Ms stop using red for 10 years, and why did they bring the color back?
Take the quiz: Can you name the traditional M&M shell colors?
Why Did M&Ms Stop Using Red for 10 Years?
The Red No. 2 Panic
If you were to talk to a few health-conscious people out there today, part of the reason why they may be selective about their diet is the concern about certain chemicals in their food. This is part of the reason why the organic movement has grown by so much today. However, concern about chemicals isn’t necessarily anything new. In the 1970s, a major controversy started to brew regarding a specific food coloring called FD&C Red No. 2, a synthetic dye also known as amaranth. The major issue stemmed from a 1971 Soviet study linking the dye to cancer.
At the time, Red No. 2 was used in a variety of food products, from ice cream to hot dog casings. As people grew more concerned and demanded answers, the government ran tests to determine whether or not the dye was truly carcinogenic. No human tests were able to confirm this, but some animal tests did link the dye to malignant tumors in female rats. This was enough for the FDA, and they banned Red No. 2 in 1976. In recent revisiting of the story, though, it’s been shown how shoddy the rat study was, and many people wonder now if Red No. 2 was ever really a threat at all.
Shortly afterward, red M&Ms disappeared off the shelves. The great irony in this is that according to M&Ms and their PR department, the candy didn’t even use Red No. 2, opting for the alternative Red No. 40. So why pull it? The official explanation is that to avoid customer confusion and unneeded panic, the red candies were pulled and replaced with orange. So, technically, M&Ms stopped using red for a decade for no real reason at all. However, they stayed committed, not just stopping making the candy, but keeping it out of all of its marketing and ads from the late 70s to the early 80s.
The panic of Red No. 2 also gave us “Blue Raspberry”. Learn more in this related post: Why Are Raspberry-Flavored Items Blue?
The Return of Red M&Ms
The truth behind the absence of red M&Ms may be a testament to the power of public perception, but how the candy was restored is a fascinating story as well: it was a case of something going viral before this was even a term. In 1982, Paul Hethmon was a freshman at the University of Tennessee. Over 350 miles from his hometown and feeling isolated, he decided to have a bit of fun to try and reconnect with his friends. This started as a parody of common junk mail letters, telling friends that they had been selected to join the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&M’s. Sending in 99 cents would get them a signed membership card from Hethmon. Originally, this was just fun between friends, but when they did send the money in, Hethmon made good on his promise and had the cards made.
The group took this to the next level, holding meetings and even preserving a rare red M&M that was discovered in a box of toys. The joke became national when the student newspaper did a report on it, and suddenly the Society made a story in the Wall Street Journal. People across the country, and even the world, suddenly wanted to join the society, and bringing back red M&Ms went from a gag to a movement. People were writing letters to the Mars candy company and even president Ronald Reagan.
The return of the candy began with Mars getting in on the joke, as the company’s PR man, Hans W. Fiuczynski, actually sent in his dues to join the Society, unprompted. In 1987, Fiuczynski sent a letter telling Hethmon that the red candies were coming back, and Hethmon even got a 50-pound bag of just red candy for his trouble. And now today, you can enjoy them any time, in any bag.
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