Gummy Bears either you like them or hate them.
From actual bears to every kid’s favorite Halloween get, the sweet, chewy history of the gummy bear.
Whether you call them “gummy” or “gummi,” whether you prefer bears or worms, whether your loyalty lies with Haribo or Black Forest, there’s no denying that the gelatinous, rainbow-colored candies most of us first came to know and love simply as “gummy bears” are one of the world’s most popular confections. Sure, chocolate bars (and the many variations thereof) remain the top-selling treats across the globe, but how many cocoa-based snacks inspired a hit animated TV series in the 1980s (Disney’s The Adventures of the Gummi Bears), a song with over 45 million hits on YouTube (The Gummy Bear Song), and played a pivotal role in the plot of an award-winning Broadway musical about a transgender East German rock singer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)?
Indeed, “gummies” (for lack of a better all-encompassing term defining the vast array of available adaptations on the original bear) surely have one of the most devoted followings of any candy in history; to know a gummy lover is to recognize both the gleam of greedy, fiendish glee that will appear in his or her eyes whenever some new form of gummy is discovered (“Oh my god, this store has gummy Smurfs!”) and the inner peace that can only be gained from a generous portion of an old favorite. (“There, there–eat your bag of Gold-Bears and you’ll feel much better.”) Yes, it’s a rabid and ever-expanding fan base; in fact, according to Haribo, if you laid all the Gold-Bears produced in a year head to toe, they would form a jiggly, tooth-decaying ring around the earth four times.
And to think it all started with a poor German factory worker, a bag of sugar, and a dream.
“Dancing Bears” and Wartime Economy
In 1920, Hans Riegel of Bonn, Germany, became frustrated with his dead-end job as a confectionary worker and started his own sweets company, making hard, colorless candies using a copper kettle and marble slab in his kitchen. His bicycle-riding wife was the sole delivery person. The name of his new business was a combination of the first two letters of his own first and last names and hometown: Hans Riegel of Bonn=Haribo.
The hard candies sold fairly well at local street fairs, but not as well as Riegel had hoped. Then, after a couple of years, Riegel hit upon what would prove to be a genius idea: He produced a line of soft, gelatin-based, fruit-flavored treats in the shape of dancing bears (then a popular diversion at festivals in Europe). But while Riegel is often credited as the inventor of gummy candy, he actually just improved upon an already successful, centuries-old, formula.
“Gummy candies descend from Turkish delight and even Japanese rice candy,” says candy historian Beth Kimmerle, author of Candy: A Sweet History. “But both of those are typically made with rice or corn starch versus gelatin.”
And when your kids plead that you ought to let you them eat gummy candies instead of the rest of their pickled vegetables because they’re both a kind of nutrition, well, they’ve actually got a point, historically speaking.
“Cooking sugar along with fruit has long been a way to preserve or store summer’s harvest,” Kimmerle says. “So technically gummy candies are also cousins of jams and jellies.”
As for what was happening on the gummy-candy timeline, when Riegel went into business, “one of the more popular pre-gummy-bear gummies at the time would have been wine gums,” Kimmerle says.
Gelatin-based chews originating in Great Britain in 1909, wine gums (which contain no alcohol, despite their name), like generic gumdrops, Jujubes (1920) and Chuckles (1921), predate Riegel’s dancing bears. However, starch-based Jujubes and pectin-based Chuckles lacked the precisely satisfying chewy texture of Riegel’s sweet creatures, and none of these candies offered the same brand of zoo-animal whimsy. As one might expect, the Tanzbären (“dancing bears”) were an instant hit with local tots; by the start of World War II, the future candy superpower had over 400 employees producing ten tons of candy each day.
However, also as one might expect, Haribo took quite a hit during the war: Hans Riegel died in 1945, and his two sons, Hans Jr. and Paul, were taken as prisoners of the Allied forces. By the time Paul and Hans were released, there were only about 30 employees working at the company.
But the sons didn’t let that discourage them from rebuilding their late father’s empire: Within five years time, Haribo had 1,000 workers in its employ, with Paul overseeing production and Hans Jr. at the helm as CEO, focusing on sales and marketing (the slogan “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo!” was his brainchild).
Trolli’s Gummy Worms
“Rubber Bears” and World Domination
Popular as Haribo’s fun, fruity teddies had become in the years following the war, the bears themselves were still in the process of becoming the iconic animals we scarf down by the handful today. At first, the bears were taller and slimmer, looking more like, well, actual critters you might see in the wild (or dancing at a festival). It wasn’t until 1960, when Hans and Paul began mass marketing the bears for a broader European market, that Haribo started producing the squatter, smushier, ostensibly more kid-friendly Gummibärchen (“little gummy bears”). In 1975, Haribo trademarked the term “Goldbären” globally. (The name is a play on the German words for “gold” and “cute.”)
And just in time, too. Thanks to German-language teachers in U.S. high schools dispensing gummy bears in classrooms so their students could sample foreign cuisines, and American servicemen bringing gummy souvenirs from overseas for their families, the demand for Gold-Bears in this country was growing. Naturally, professional sugar pushers looking to create a similar cash cow (or bear, as it were) had starting making their own versions of Haribo’s best-selling item: The American Jelly Belly Company (previously The Herman Goelitz Company) came out with a gummy bear in 1981, the same year Trolli launched gummy worms. In 1982, Haribo, which had been selling Gold-Bears through U.S. distributors, astutely decided it was time to open up its first American office and staked its claim in Baltimore (the branch is still in operation today).
So began the now decades-long debate over which was the superior Gold-Bear: German or American? (Not to mention the many debates over the merits of Gold-Bears versus Black Forest, Heide, Jelly Belly, and the countless other competitors who would crop up over the years.) Many insist to this day that the German version is better, with more “real fruit” taste, a chewier consistency, and one extra type of bear (apple! The rest are raspberry, orange, lemon, pineapple, and strawberry, in case you were wondering). Of course, there are also those rare gummy fans who prefer Trolli’s mouth-puckering, neon-colored worms or even the more subdued, somewhat unidentifiable flavors of Black Forest, for example. Perhaps this wide range of public opinion and appetite is the reason why no legal disputes over the origin or image of the gummy bear have been recorded, save one between Haribo and the chocolate company Lindt over the latter’s lookalike gold-foil-wrapped chocolate bear (Haribo won in 2012).
Still, as the confection’s creator (with a closely guarded secret recipe), Haribo has secured its status as one of the leading gummy manufacturers in the world*–*currently, they produce 100 million Gold-Bears every single day.
Haribo Gummy Worms
“I believe Haribo’s popularity has to do with their texture and flavors,” Kimmerle says. “In my opinion, Haribo gummy candies are more firm and the flavors more…sophisticated. Haribo’s bears pack more nuanced flavor, and the bite is better; it makes them more satisfying. The others offer sort of indistinguishable flavors and are mostly just sweet. Shape isn’t everything. Any company can make a starch-molded gummy bear, but Haribo’s has bold flavor and offers a good chew.”
Which is not to say that Haribo stopped at bears. Among the top ten most popular gummy products sold by the company are Happy Cola gummy cola bottles, gummy frogs, gummy peaches, gummy raspberries, and gummy peaches (not quite as popular? Haribo’s “A… Mit Ohren,” or “Bums With Ears”). Hans Riegel Jr. ran the company until his death in 2013, when two nephews took over, ensuring that Haribo would remain a family-run business (Hans Riegel Jr. famously turned down a huge buyout offer from Warren Buffett in 2008, claiming, “Money was never my motivation. I don’t even know when I made my first million.”).
Gummies Take Hollywood
Even Gold-Bear purists, however, have to marvel at the humble gummy’s place in pop culture. From gummy fast food (pizzas and hamburgers and French fries and even sushi) to gummy body parts to vegan, gelatin-free sour gummy worms to gummy vitamins, it seems there are fewer things that haven’t been gummified than have. And those are just the edible results of our nearly century-long obsession with gummy treats. They’ve made an almost equally sizable mark on entertainment, furnishings, jewelry, clothes, toys…the list is endless. According to rumor, the aforementioned Disney series The Adventures of the Gummi Bears came about because former CEO Michael Eisner’s young son had an affinity for the treats; in Hedwig, the title character’s first encounter with gummy bears from the U.S. (sweeter, less complicated) symbolizes the American Dream for a young man trapped behind the Berlin Wall. Then there’s the sly, almost subliminal plug for gummy bears hidden in the classic 1986 flick Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“My sister-in-law, Polly Noonan, is the actress who offers Principal Rooney a gummy bear at the end of the movie,” Kimmerle says.”Her line (“Gummy Bear? They’ve been in my pocket. They’re real warm and soft.”) ** sealed the cultural fate of the bears for most Gen Xers. They’ve only become more iconic since.”
But when it comes down it, it’s not really about the movies, the cartoons, or even the taste or chew, Kimmerle says. It’s that gummy bears (of all brands) are just so adorable: “I do think the bears have become so significant because they are anthropomorphic. They are so easy to personify and well, love. No other candy is a cute, mini creature quite like a gummy bear.”
To be sure, gummy bears are the only candy charming enough to propel a tune as absurd as “The Gummy Bear Song” to chart-topping status (sample lyrics: “Oh, I’m a yummy, tummy, funny, lucky gummy bear/I’m a jelly bear, cuz I’m a gummy bear”).
But perhaps it’s actually the theme song from The Adventures of the Gummi Bears that says it best:
Bouncing here and there and everywhere
High adventure that’s beyond compare
They are the Gummi Bears!