In order to get Pop Rocks on the shelves, someone had to lose a finger.
Back in 1975, General Foods executives thought they had struck gold with the candy, a pebble-sized shell holding carbon dioxide that cracked and fizzed when warmed up in someone’s mouth. Kids loved the novelty aspect of it; adults were concerned that rumors of exploding stomachs were true; and journalists had a field day with the seeming scarcity and black market resale that made the candy seem more like a controlled substance than a legal treat.
Ingesting Pop Rocks wasn’t dangerous, but much like some less-than-legal addictive substances, making them could be. Trying to mass-produce carbonated candy proved to be a challenge for General Foods, one in which molten liquid candy threatened to scald workers, who had to wear protective suits like a scene out of Breaking Bad. The prepared treat had to be crushed after production, using hundreds of pounds of pressure—and in at least one case, depriving a factory employee of a digit after it was caught between a tube and steel beam.
It was a lot of sacrifice for a candy that couldn’t even be sold everywhere in the country. And that had a lot to do with an exploding delivery truck.
Pop Rocks were the brainchild of food scientist William Mitchell, who was working for General Foods in 1956 when he started experimenting with a way to make a carbonated beverage powder—essentially a fizzy Kool-Aid. The only thing that worked were the tiny granules of carbonation, which he decided to taste. To his surprise, the bits made an audible crackle once the sugar had dissolved. Recognizing the texture and “pop” would be something different, he asked other food scientists to try it.
“It became a game—who could swallow the biggest chunk,” Mitchell told People in 1979. “It was a fun afternoon and we wasted a lot of time, but I thought it was a good thing from the start.”
General Foods wasn’t so sure. For 18 long years, the fizzy candy—made from sugar, lactose, corn syrup, and flavorings that held back the CO2 until dissolving—was mostly passed around Mitchell’s family. That changed when a shift in management prompted another look, and in 1975, the company began a trial of Pop Rocks in Canada.
The chilly test market was intentional. Pop Rocks tended to fare poorly in warmer climates, melting before they had a chance to detonate upon ingestion. According to The Indianapolis News, one truck experienced an explosion when their entire Pop Rocks contents overheated, sending the doors flying open. General Foods confirmed the incident took place, which further affirmed their temperature-related reservations.
In 1976, General Foods began a slow national rollout, avoiding areas where the temperature exceeded 85 degrees and eliminating distribution entirely over the summer months. (The limited run was also compensating for a slow production process that threatened fingers.) Grape, orange, and cherry flavors were available for 15 to 25 cents a pack.
It provided a quick sugar rush for kids. "It feels like rain falling down on my tongue," said Roger Kirchner, a second-grader at Sacred Heart Grade School in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. "It feels [like] there's a popcorn popper on my tongue."
The novelty of Pop Rocks compelled kids to race to grab the candy before flew off shelves. At Osco Drug in Saint Paul, Minnesota, employees went through 24,000 packages in a matter of weeks.
The regional exclusivity of Pop Rocks brought up a discomfiting drug metaphor—an illicit black market. Adults who were able to buy Pop Rocks in available states like Oregon and Washington moved them to states where the candy wasn't sold and offload them at a dramatic mark-up: as much as $1 a package.
It wasn’t just adults. “What’s happened is that school kids would buy the packets and then sell them to their friends with quite a surcharge,” Mitchell told the Associated Press in 1979. “They were profiteering.”
The New York Times writer Lawrence Van Gelder had fun with this metaphor, writing in a May 19, 1978 article that:
"One day last month, when Justin Prisendorf was still 9 years old, someone came up to him at the exclusive Collegiate School and gave him a free sample of some pink granules ... The next time Justin wanted some of the granules, he had to pay. The price was a dollar. More than a month has passed. Justin is 10 years old now. These days, he is popping regularly. Each week he buys a couple of envelopes of a substance whose price tag on the streets figures out to $80 a kilo. In some places, according to word reaching the manufacturers, it commands $200 a kilo."
While no one was buying a Scarface-sized mansion off of Pop Rocks profits, they were still a wise investment. Even at 25 cents a pack, selling them for 50 cents—a 100 percent mark-up—was worth a few trips across state lines.
The scheme wasn’t limited to consumers, either. Truck drivers in Canada were suspected of transporting the candy to Minnesota.
From the beginning, Pop Rocks caused a stir on playgrounds, with kids mythologizing the candy by saying children had died from consuming it, sometimes by mixing it with carbonated soda for a fatal dose of carbon dioxide. John Gilchrist, the actor who played Mikey in the popular Life cereal commercials (“Mikey likes it!”) was reputed to be the highest-profile victim.
Mikey was fine. No one had ever ingested a fatal dose of Pop Rocks, but the rumors still led to stores taking them off shelves and prompted General Foods to send Mitchell and spokespeople to do damage control. Mitchell reminded press the candy had just a tenth the carbonation of a can of soda and that gas was the only possible side effect. The candy had even been given the all-clear by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which had tested the product in response to unsubstantiated complaints of exploding children and set up a Seattle hotline to soothe concerned parents.
Not all the cases were so easily dismissed, however. The FDA did find a handful where kids were slightly aggrieved by Pop Rocks owing to excess consumption. “In those cases where we have been able to get a name and verify a reaction, what has happened is that people overindulge, especially young children,” FDA spokesperson Emil Corwin told Gannett News Service in 1979. “[They] eat not one or two [packages], but six or seven or more, all at one time or one after another, and wash it down with a carbonated drink.
“The reaction is fairly predictable. It irritates the mucus membrane of the mouth and they get a red, sore tongue or a sore throat, have some difficulty swallowing and, with kids, maybe a stomach upset.” Kids, Corwin said, were “abusing” the product.
Between limited availability, price gouging, and presumed-dead tots, Pop Rocks had a short shelf life, largely disappearing by 1982. (They are, like so many other things retro, available for purchase today.)
Though Mitchell talked up a powdered alcohol in development, it never saw the light of day: General Foods wasn’t in the business of peddling adult beverages. And while Pop Rocks wound up moving 500 million packets by 1979, Mitchell didn’t see much of a windfall: General Foods gave him a $5000 bonus in the form of a Chairman’s Award.