By Brett Yates
Sour Patch Kids, the iconic child-shaped treat invented in the 1970s by a Long Island man named Frank Galatolie, are, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest mass-produced American candy. To me, their astringent artificiality best captures the essence of what “candy” means in an industrialized society. It’s not a “sweet,” not a “confection,” not a “dessert”—it’s gaudy and multi-colored, a pure sugar rush whose sugar is barely identifiable as such: the granules comprise a somehow amped-up, nearly unrecognizable iteration of the household staple, with an added tingle and tang, that makes the everyday version, though it’s steadily destroying the health of most Americans, seem wholesome by comparison.
In short, Sour Patch Kids are an addictive drug for children, with none of the civilized veneer of a Hershey’s Kiss or the quaint charm of a Swedish Fish. They have more in common with a fast-paced video game than they do with actual food.
Earlier this year, Mondelez International, the corporation that controls the Sour Patch brand, released its first new addition to its roster of Sour Patch Kids products in six years. Like a hit show on an underperforming network, the classic Sour Patch Kids have long dragged in their wake a host of forgettable spinoff candies, many of them short-lived, that never measured up to the timeless perfection of the original. Some, however, have captured their own independent audiences, namely the one-note but still passable Sour Patch Watermelons.
Based on internet buzz, the reception for Tropical Sour Patch Kids seems positive. After their March debut, a writer for PopSugar called them an “upgrade” over the original (while acknowledging that such a feat would be “hard to imagine”) and added that the new line of treats had inspired the website’s staff to “to pack our bags for a tropical vacation and sip on piña coladas while snacking on the fruity candy.”
Disappointed by previous Sour Patch cousins, such as Sour Patch Extreme and Sour Patch Exploders, I was nevertheless hesitant to stray from my tried-and-true favorites, but finally I decided to give the new Kids on the block a chance.
The packaging on the Tropical edition didn’t give me much hope: somehow it seemed clear from the smug, carefree expressions of the sunglasses-clad Kids whose images decorated the box that they were vacationers within a tropical locale, rather than resident of one, and this contributed to a sense that they would be fundamentally the same candy under a different guise. Because Sour Patch Kids are perfect as they are, a slight wrinkle in the formula can only be a diminishment; any worthwhile addition to the Sour Patch line must have its own distinct identity.
The back of the box shows the four Tropical Kids on surfboards and identifies their flavors as “passion fruit” (purple), “tropical twist” (orange), “pineapple” (white), and “paradise punch” (red). Once I had tasted them, I realized that I had underestimated Mondelez International’s commitment to its tropical theme: all four flavors have an overripe quality redolent of sticky Central American rainforests, and a persistent overtone of coconut explains the PopSugar critic’s evocation of piña coladas.
Like the original Sour Patch Kids, the Tropical Kids all taste kind of different from one another but also kind of the same. The pineapple and passion fruit candies are, I think, traceable to their natural sources (no small feat, considering that surely no natural flavor from either fruit was used), while the orange and red candies taste as though they were conceived as representations of mango and guava, respectively. I can’t say why generic names were substituted in their cases: even if focus groups couldn’t pinpoint the flavors, no one really expects a perfect correspondence among fruity candies anyway.
For reference, the “tropical twist” Kid has a significantly lighter shade than the classic orange Kid, but the “paradise punch” Kid is basically identical in appearance to the classic red Kid. None of the Tropical kids is identifiably worse than any of his brethren, which some would call a step up from the original Sour Patch Kids, where the green Kid is typically considered the ugly duckling. But what the green Kids’ critics don’t understand is that, like the pickled ginger served alongside sushi, it’s meant to be a palate-cleanser rather, not an end unto itself; the total experience of the Sour Patch Kids would be less interesting if all the flavors were equally delicious.
One slightly annoying aspect of Sour Patch Kids that, paradoxically, contributes to their greatness is that the quality varies a bit from bag to bag: sometimes you get an especially good batch, and sometimes you get a bad one, and knowledge of this irregularity generates a small thrill as you prepare to dig in. Probably the variability owes to differences of freshness or storage conditions, but I’m not entirely convinced that the discrepancies aren’t born in the manufacturing process itself.
In any case, my Tropical Sour Patch Kids seemed crumbly and internally textureless beneath their kitty-litter coating of stale sugar, compared to the supple chewiness of the classic Sour Patch Kids with which I was occasionally alternating bites. But since I’ve had similarly negative experiences with the classic Kids, I wouldn’t necessarily designate this as a problem of the Tropical line specifically. I think I just got unlucky.
The real problem with the Tropical Sour Patch Kids is that they’re not quite as sour as the originals. Their flavor is very sweet and pretty good, but it isn’t as sharp or aggressive. Sour Patch Kids have a boldness of taste, before their sweetness sets in, that isn’t attributable wholly to sourness: the quality is biting, caustic, and charged with a very particular ecstasy that is not the stuff of languorous Caribbean resort vacations. Their best pairing, of course, is an all-consuming internet addiction, not a piña colada.