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The Surprisingly Dark Origins of Gummy Bears

Michele Debczak
Gummy bears have a surprisingly dark origin.
Gummy bears have a surprisingly dark origin. / easphotography/Moment/Getty Images
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Germany is famous for foods like bratwurst, schnitzel, and, starting in the 20th century,  gummy bears. If you live outside Germany, you may not think of gummy bears as a foreign snack, but they were regarded as such as recently as 50 years ago. German-language teachers in the U.S. even brought the ursine candies into their classrooms to teach students about the country’s cuisine.

Outside of an educational context, most American children would never have had a chance to taste the sweets before the 1980s. So how did gummy bears go from niche German product to worldwide phenomenon? How did bears become the default apex predator to consume in candy form? And what’s the connection between the adorable gummies and animal abuse? Here’s everything you need to know about gummy bears—from the sweet moments to the not-so-sweet ones.

Candies Before Gummy Bears

Today, gummy bears are one of the most popular gelatin candies sold. Gelatin is made by drawing proteins called collagen out of animal products like bones—so while gummy bears don’t contain actual bears, they’re usually not vegetarian unless labeled otherwise.

The first jelly candies used flour or starch instead of gelatin to achieve a soft, bouncy texture. Turkish delight (or lokum in the original Turkish), originated in the Ottoman Empire roughly two-and-a-half centuries ago. Confectioner Haci Bekir Effendi opened his candy shop in modern-day Istanbul in 1777 and started selling the jiggly, jellied cubes in a variety of sweet flavors. The recipe has likely antecedents—there are other traditional Turkish confections made from boiled-down grape juice mixed with starches. It’s thought that when sugar syrup started to become more widely available, it replaced the boiled grape juice and allowed for different flavorings to shine, which is what Bekir Effendi perfected. Today, his family-owned store is the oldest business in Turkey and, according to the BBC, one of the 100 oldest still-operating businesses on Earth. 

A dish of Turkish delight.
A dish of Turkish delight. / AnjelikaGretskaia/RooM/Getty Images

Turkish Delight soon became popular internationally. But Europeans had a problem—making real Turkish Delight using starch is time-consuming, and according to food historian Laura Mason, Europeans just couldn’t get the knack of how to make it. So they cheated. That’s why you see a lot of recipes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that use gelatin, which creates a very differently textured treat.

Then, in 1909, British candymaker Charles Gordon Maynard debuted wine gums, one of the first commercial sweets made with gelatin. His candies didn’t contain actual wine—something he struggled to convince his conservative teetotaler father of—but they did combine chewy gelatin and sweet flavoring in a bite-sized package. 

Wine gums pioneered the gelatin gummy formula, but their presentation left something to be desired. The candies, which are still around today, traditionally come in generic shapes like rhombus, circle, and oblong. It’s hard to imagine a gummy rhombus inspiring any Saturday morning cartoons

The Rise of Haribo

There was still a hole in the market for whimsical gummy candies, and Haribo became the one to fill it. Hans Riegel founded the sweets company in 1920 after leaving his job at a candy factory; the name Haribo is a portmanteau of his first and last name and his hometown of Bonn, Germany.

Haribo’s first products were colorless hard candies Riegel made in a copper pot at home. He sold his confections at local street fairs and had his wife deliver them via bicycle. They sold well, but not well enough to take his operation to the next level.

Then, in 1922, he had the idea to mold fruit-flavored gelatin into the shape of bears. This sweet treat catapulted Haribo to success and eventually launched a worldwide obsession with shaped gummy candies.

So why did Riegel choose to model his gummies after bears instead of lions or tigers? The shape originated as an homage to a European tradition that goes back centuries [PDF]. Trained “dancing” bears gained popularity during the Middle Ages, and they persisted into the 20th century. They were still a common sight at German festivals 100 years ago, so Riegel knew it was an image his customers would recognize. 

Once you know more about the practice that gave gummy bears their shape, the less cute the candies are. Captive bears were poached from the wild as cubs and trained to perform tricks through horrifically abusive practices. Trainers taught their bears to “dance” by forcing them to stand on metal plates over fire while music played. As the plates got hotter, the bears hopped from one paw to the other to relieve their discomfort. Eventually the animals learned to associate music with pain and lifted their feet in a dance-like motion every time they heard it.

Dancing bears are banned in Germany today, but the legacy of the tradition lives on in every bag of gummy bears.

Gummy Bears Go International

By 1960, tanzbären, or “dancing bears,” were a staple of German sweet shops, and Haribo was ready to expand their reach.

That year they began selling their product to the wider European market. They also changed the look of the candy from slimmer, more naturalistic bears to the pudgier, teddy bear-like shapes we’re all familiar with. In 1967, Haribo started manufacturing packs of multi-colored gummy bears after previously only making them in gold, and in 1975 they trademarked the brand name goldbären, or “gold bear.”

A gold gummy bear made by Haribo.
A gold gummy bear made by Haribo. / ROLF VENNENBERND/GettyImages

Haribo’s gold bears come in five classic flavors: strawberry, lemon, orange, pineapple, and raspberry. And while it’s true that different gummy bear colors have distinct flavors, what you taste doesn’t always match reality. Some people report Haribo’s green bear as tasting like apple or watermelon when it’s actually strawberry flavored.

This discrepancy is a product of how color affects our perception of taste. Our brains are highly suggestible. Just seeing the color yellow is enough to convince us that we’re tasting lemon even if we’re eating something flavored with a different fruit. The same principle applies to other colors and flavors. 

This effect was demonstrated in an experiment about the influence of food coloring on taste perception. Researchers had college students sample clear, fruit-flavored beverages that had been dyed random colors. Even when the experimenters asked their subjects to ignore the color of what they were drinking, they still reported tasting flavors that were merely suggested by the food dye. So while Haribo claims to use unique flavorings for each gummy bear color, you might not notice if they didn’t.

The gummy craze didn’t reach the U.S. until the 1980s. In 1981, two companies started making gummy bears in the United States—Herman Goelitz and Brock. The next year, Haribo opened offices stateside. Soon, Americans were eating gummy candy in every form imaginable.

Beyond Bears—And Candy

Gummy shapes that have stood the test of time include gummy sharks, peach rings, and cola bottles. Some varieties were shorter-lived, like Dungeons & Dragons gummies from the ‘80s and Haribo’s limited-edition arsch mit ohren, which translates to a German insult meaning “ass with ears.” Trolli’s roadkill gummies hadn’t been on shelves for long when they were discontinued in 2005. Animal rights activists pressured the company to stop making the candies shaped like squished animals with tire marks.

Gummy mania even infiltrated our media. In 1985, Adventures of the Gummi Bears premiered on NBC. The cartoon series marked the end of Disney’s longstanding policy of staying out of animated television content. Its success paved the way for beloved Disney shows like DuckTales, TaleSpin, and Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers—and gave us one banger of a theme song.

Haribo may have invented the gummy bear, but they’re no longer the only name in the game. Their global success inspired other companies like Brach’s, Jelly Belly, and Albanese to start producing their own lines of gummy bears. The bears themselves have also evolved over the years. Today several brands sell giant gummy bears that weigh up to five pounds. But most sugar lovers still prefer to eat their carnivorous mammals in a tinier, more adorable package.

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.

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