Candy from Thin Air

November 29, 2010 at 9:35 am Leave a comment

I don’t know whether to file this one under “Willy Wonka” or “Star Trek.”

In 1928 a report came out of Frankfort-on-Main that German chemists were working on the synthetic production of sugar. The idea was to take the carbon, oxygen, and hydogen that make up our atmosphere, and somehow combine them in the lab to create sugar. In theory it makes sense: sugar is a carobohydrate, a combination of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. But it sounds a lot like those food replicators on Star Trek where you punch in your favorite pie and the computer assembles it out of atoms. Great in theory, but probably not gonna happen.

An unnamed scientist is quoted by way of explanation for this futuristic research: “Since we are deprived of the sources of raw products, we have been compelled in view of our crowded condition of population to resort to scientific research in our national fight for physical existence.” That is to say, if the scientists succeeded in extracting caloric food from thin air, the nation’s food problems would be solved.

Knowing how Germany’s “national fight for physical existence” played out in the following decades, this remark is a little chilling.

As for candy, I do not think the scientists succeeded in creating sugar out of air. Plants can do it, that’s what photosynthesis is. But this scientist was correct to predict “a series of revolutionary discoveries in food chemistry in the next few years.” The “green revolution” used chemistry to increase crop yields: if the scientists couldn’t replicate photosynthesis in the lab, they did manage to leverage photosynthesis in the field to produce more usable food calories per acre.

Industrial farming efficiencies have made corn an increasingly important (and cheap) source of starches and sugars. And cheap corn is part of what has kept candy so cheap and plentiful.  So if we think of the effects of chemistry on transforming crop yields, maybe we did end up with a sort of candy from thin air.

Sources: Jan. 10, 1928 AP story as reported in Confectioners Journal Feb. 1928, p. 70. Star Trek card uploaded to Flikr by Jimmy Tyler.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

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