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50 Sweet Facts About Your Favorite Halloween Candies

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It’s no surprise that candy delights kids and adults alike. We love sweets so much that the average American eats about 22 pounds of candy each year. Whether you’re looking to impress your friends or simply brush up on your candy trivia, check out these 50 sweet facts about your favorite candies.

1. THE MOST POPULAR HALLOWEEN CANDY VARIES BY STATE.

A bowl of candy corn on a piece of burlap.
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Candy corn takes the title in Alabama, while Swedish fish win in Georgia. But Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Milky Ways, and M&Ms are a few of the most consistently popular candies in all 50 states.

2. THE CREATOR OF REESE’S PEANUT BUTTER CUPS NAMED THE TREAT AFTER HIMSELF.

A partial shot of a peanut butter cup on a blue background.
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Harry Burnett Reese sold the Lizzie Bar and Johnny Bar, candy bars he named after his daughter and son, respectively. But his chocolate-covered peanut butter cup creation, which he named after himself and called Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, was his real hit.

3. THE INVENTOR OF THE TOOTSIE ROLL ALSO CREATED A PRECURSOR TO JELL-O.

A photo of giant tootsie rolls in old-fashioned packaging.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Leo Hirschfield, the inventor of Tootsie Rolls, also invented Bromangelon Jelly Powder, a gelatin dessert that was a precursor to Jell-O.

4. A DENTIST INVENTED COTTON CANDY.

Bags of brightly colored cotton candy in various hues.
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You wouldn’t expect a dentist to be responsible for helping to pioneer a new type of candy, although maybe he was hoping it would drum up some cavity-related business. In 1897, dentist William Morrison partnered with confectioner John C. Wharton to devise a machine that used centrifugal force to turn sugar into cotton-like strands. The result was cotton candy, but that name didn’t come until the 1920s. Morrison and Wharton called their treat “Fairy Floss.” And who says this treat is just for summer carnivals? These days, you can buy cotton candy in several Halloween varieties, including Werewolf Hair and Pumpkin Guts.

5. IN JAPAN, ADULTS CAN BUY SAKE-FLAVORED KIT KATS.

A person holding a package of sake-flavored kit kats.
Nelo Hotsuma, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

They’re enveloped in white chocolate and contain sake powder (0.8 percent alcohol). The Japanese can also snack on whiskey-flavored Pocky sticks, which are covered in chocolate and flavored with malt.

6. THE TRUE ORIGIN OF THE BABY RUTH BAR HAS BEEN DEBATED FOR DECADES.

A stack of Baby Ruth bars in a box.
Justin Sullivan // Getty Images

Introduced in 1921, when baseball player Babe Ruth was a national hero, the Curtiss Candy Company reformulated their Kandy Kake confection and gave it a name reminiscent of sports royalty: Baby Ruth. But when Ruth licensed his name for another bar in 1926, Curtiss cried foul, claiming it would cause consumer confusion and swearing that they had named their bar not after the baseball legend but after Ruth Cleveland, the deceased daughter of President Grover Cleveland. Even though “Baby Ruth” had died of diphtheria in 1904 and would be an odd choice for a candy bar name, the courts agreed; Ruth never got in on the treat trade.

7. THE MILKY WAY BAR WAS INSPIRED BY A MALTED MILKSHAKE.

A Milky Way bar on a black background.
Erin McCarthy

Milky Way was meant to mimic the taste of a malted milkshake, which was popular in the 1920s.

8. WHITE CHOCOLATE ISN’T ACTUALLY CHOCOLATE.

Squares of white chocolate stacked on top of each other.
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Lovers of white chocolate, beware: Because white chocolate doesn’t contain cocoa solids, it's not real chocolate.

9. TOBLERONE CUSTOMERS ARE A PASSIONATE, VOCAL BUNCH.

Boxes of Toblerone chocolates stacked on top of each other.
Mike Pont/Getty Images for NYCWFF

When the chocolate bar company decided to cut costs by reducing the weight of two of their bars sold in the UK, fans loudly expressed their disappointment and mocked the new bar’s fewer triangular chocolate peaks.

10. THE TWO M'S IN M&M’S STAND FOR MARS AND MURRIE.

A pile of M&Ms candies.
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Those are the surnames of the two businessmen—Forrest Mars and Bruce Murrie—who developed and financed the candy-coated chocolates.

11. LIFE SAVERS GOT THEIR ROUND SHAPE AFTER THE CANDY’S INVENTOR VISITED A PHARMACY.

An orange-spotted Life Saver on a black background.
gosheshe, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Clarence Crane, the creator of Life Savers, made his candies round rather than square, which was the typical shape for most mints at the time, after visiting a pharmacy. Inspiration struck when he saw a machine making pills that were round and flat, and the rest is history.

12. IT TAKES LICKING MACHINES (YES, THEY’RE A REAL THING) ANYWHERE FROM 364 TO 411 LICKS TO REACH THE CENTER OF A TOOTSIE POP.

Tootsie Pops in a bale of hay.
John Morgan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Human lickers, on the other hand, averaged just 144 to 252 licks.

13. E.T. COULD HAVE EATEN M&M’S INSTEAD OF REESE’S PIECES.

A wax figure of the alien from 'E.T. the Extraterrestrial.'
Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Madame Tussauds

The iconic scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, in which Elliott entices the alien with Reese's Pieces, almost didn't happen. Steven Spielberg’s first two choices of candy were M&M’s and Hershey’s Kisses, but when the Hershey Company offered to pay $1 million to showcase their candy creation, Reese’s Pieces became E.T.'s favorite sweet.

14. YOU CAN PAIR YOUR FAVORITE HALLOWEEN CANDY WITH WINE.

Two classes of red wine on a table with some chocolate.
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Based on criteria including flavor, acidity, bitterness, and sweetness, wine experts recommend pairing Whoppers with Cabernet Sauvignon, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with Sherry, and Hershey’s Kisses with Zinfandel.

15. M&M’S COME IN A LOT MORE FLAVORS THAT MILK CHOCOLATE, PEANUT, AND CRISPY.

A bag of coffee nut m&ms.
Erin McCarthy

You can also snack on M&M’s in more esoteric flavors (some are limited-edition): pecan pie, peanut butter, pumpkin spice latte, pretzel, white cheesecake, coffee nut, dark mint, and caramel, for starters.

16. THE WORD PEZ COMES FROM THE GERMAN WORD FOR PEPPERMINT: PFEFFERMINZ.

Photos of Pez dispensers, including Mickey Mouse, Kermit, and Batman.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Invented by anti-smoking advocate Eduard Haas III, PEZ were originally marketed as mints to help smokers kick the habit. The candy’s slogan in the 1920s? "Smoking prohibited, PEZing allowed."

17. NAMING THE SNICKERS BAR HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH LAUGHING AT A GOOD JOKE.

Snickers bars piled up on each other.
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Franklin Mars, the patriarch of the Mars company, named the candy bar after a beloved racehorse his family owned that had just passed away. Snickers was raised on his family’s farm, the Milky Way, in Tennessee.

18. DUNKIN’ DONUTS AND HERSHEY ONCE TEAMED UP TO CREATE CANDY-FLAVORED COFFEE.

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They offered Heath bar and Almond Joy flavored options.

19. THERE IS SUCH A THING AS EATING TOO MUCH CANDY.

An orange pail with filled with, and surrounded by, Halloween candy.
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According to the American Chemical Society, eating 262 fun-sized Halloween candy bars would poison a 180-pound person. But don't worry about death by candy: You'd vomit before you’d be able to down that many candy bars in one sitting.

20. THE RIVALRY BETWEEN FANS OF TWIZZLERS AND RED VINES IS FIERCE AND DEEP-SEATED.

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Candy fans have heated online debates about which licorice product has a better taste, texture, and appearance.

21. IT'S NOT CHOCOLATE BETWEEN THE LAYERS OF WAFER IN A KIT KAT BAR.

A Kat Kat bar in a red wrapper.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

It’s actually recycled Kit Kats. Technicians pull any imperfect Kit Kats—with off-center wafers or not enough shine, for example—and then grind them into a paste.

22. PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN REALLY LOVED JELLY BELLY JELLY BEANS.

President Ronald Reagan presents president-elect Bill Clinton with a jar of red, white, and blue jelly beans.
PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

He loved eating them so much that Air Force One was outfitted with special jelly bean holders, lest turbulence cause his beloved beans to spill.

23. THE GOELITZ CANDY COMPANY’S BRAND OF CANDY CORN HAS BEEN AROUND SINCE 1898.

A white spoon full of candy corn.
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It was called "chicken feed," since real corn kernels were usually only fed to livestock. (In 2001, the Herman Goelitz Candy Company changed its name to the Jelly Belly Candy Company.)

24. ASTRONAUTS LOVE M&MS.

An open bag of plain M&Ms on a white background.
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M&Ms have proven to be among the more popular candy requests for astronauts on space missions. Because they’re bite-sized and candy coated, they don’t make much of a mess. They can also be released in the air and gobbled up, Pac-Man style, by space travelers.

25. THE PHRASE TOOTSIE ROLLS MEANT SOMETHING OTHER THAN CANDY DURING THE KOREAN WAR.

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U.S. soldiers in the First Marine Division used the phrase as a codename for mortar shells. But the real candy came in handy when the soldiers used chewed-up Tootsie Rolls to patch holes in their vehicles' fuel lines.

26. BUTTERFINGER ONCE HAD AN ENERGY BAR.

Someone holding up a butterfinger bar.
djpoblete09, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2009, Butterfinger debuted Butterfinger Buzz, a candy bar containing 80 milligrams of caffeine (the equivalent of a can of Red Bull). But due to low sales, the product was discontinued.

27. UP UNTIL 1990, UK FANS OF SNICKERS HAD TO ASK FOR MARATHON BARS.

A Marathon bar.
John Jones, Flickr // CC BY ND 2.0

That was the name given to the candy bar in England because Snickers rhymed with “knickers,” a popular slang term for women’s underwear. (The Marathon brand made a comeback in 2008.)

28. JUNIOR MINTS WERE NAMED AFTER A BROADWAY PLAY.

An open box of Junior Mints candy on a white background.
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Junior Miss ran from 1941 to 1943.

29. TO APPEAL TO KIDS, PEZ TURNED CANDY DISPENSERS INTO TOYS.

A Garfield Pez dispenser.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The first dispensers geared toward children were shaped like Santa Claus, a robot, and a space gun.

30. EVERY DAY, 64 MILLION TOOTSIE ROLLS ARE MADE.

A close-up view of a bunch of Tootsie Rolls.
Erin McCarthy

That means that over 44,440 Tootsie Rolls are created per minute!

31. HARIBO, THE CANDY COMPANY FAMOUS FOR ITS GUMMY BEARS, IS A PORTMANTEAU.

A bag of Haribo gummy bears.
PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Creator Hans Riegel combined the first two letters of his first and last name with the first two letters of his hometown: Bonn, Germany.

32. JELLY BELLY MAKES A LINE OF ENERGY BEANS.

Two bags of Jelly Belly Sport Beans.
Joel Kramer, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sport Beans contain carbohydrates, electrolytes, B vitamins, and Vitamin C. Who says you can’t eat candy while exercising?

33. CANDY CORN ISN’T JUST FOR HALLOWEEN.

A bag of valentine's themed candy corn.
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There are varieties for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter.

34. THE DESIGN OF MARY JANE CANDIES—A YELLOW WRAPPER WITH A RED STRIPE AND A DRAWING OF A YOUNG GIRL—HAS STAYED THE SAME FOR MORE THAN 100 YEARS.

A stack of Mary Jane candies.
Cathy Stanley-Erickson, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The inside of the candies, a mixture of peanut butter and molasses, is also virtually unchanged.

35. DOTS GUMDROPS ARE GLUTEN-FREE AND VEGAN-FRIENDLY.

A box of DOTS gumdrops on a black background.
Erin McCarthy

They may also be one of the most pervasive non-chocolate candies on the market: More than 4 billion DOTS are rolled out annually.

36. 3 MUSKETEERS WAS SO-NAMED BECAUSE IT ORIGINALLY FEATURED CHOCOLATE, STRAWBERRY, AND VANILLA PIECES OF CANDY.

A 3 Musketeers bar on a black background.
Erin McCarthy

But vanilla and strawberry (as well as sugar) were scarce during World War II, so 3 Musketeers ditched the vanilla and strawberry to focus on chocolate.

37. SAM BORN FOUNDED THE JUST BORN CANDY COMPANY IN 1923.

The exterior of Just Born, Inc.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The guy behind the company that makes Mike and Ikes and Hot Tamales originally made his fortune by inventing the Born Sucker Machine—a device that would insert sticks into lollipops.

38. IT USED TO TAKE 27 HOURS TO MAKE ONE PEEP.

A tray of pumpkin peeps.
Erin McCarthy

After automation, now it only takes six minutes. That means the Pennsylvania factory can pump out 5.5 million Peeps a day!

39. NORTH DAKOTANS IN SEARCH OF CANDY CIGARETTES BETWEEN 1953 AND 1967 WERE OUT OF LUCK.

A carton of candy cigarettes.
zombieite, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The state banned the candy due to concerns that it would encourage kids to smoke real cigarettes.

40. PEZ HAS FEATURED SOME UNUSUAL FLAVORS THROUGHOUT ITS HISTORY.

A group of green and blue Pez.
Dave Lawler, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

They’ve ranged from the intriguing (cola, pineapple) to the worrisome (chlorophyll, offering a plant-flavored experience). Flavors will also vary depending on region: PEZ enthusiasts in the U.S. can’t get peach.

41. CUSTOMERS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM CAN BUY JARS OF TWIX SPREAD.

A Twix bar on a white background.
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It’s a Nutella-like spreadable that contains chocolate, caramel, and crunchy pieces of biscuit.

42. AFTER ITS BAG IS OPENED, CANDY CORN CAN LAST FOR THREE TO SIX MONTHS.

An open bag of candy corn.
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Just make sure to store it at room temperature away from heat and light.

43. EVEN THOUGH TWIZZLERS ARE KNOWN AS A “LICORICE CANDY,” ONLY THE BLACK LICORICE PACKAGES CONTAIN LICORICE EXTRACT.

A pile of black and red Twizzlers.
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The standard strawberry ones are made with corn syrup, enriched wheat flour, and artificial flavoring.

44. IF YOU LOVE SNACKING ON EVERLASTING GOBSTOPPERS, RUNTS, AND LAFFY TAFFY, YOU CAN PARTIALLY THANK ROALD DAHL.

A pile of laffy taffy candies.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, the film based on Roald Dahl's book Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, was the impetus for Quaker Oats, who agreed to help finance the film, to launch a candy line (which later became The Willy Wonka Candy Company) to bring the imaginative candy creations to life.

45. EVERY EIGHT HOURS, MARS’S NEW JERSEY FACTORY PRODUCES 2 BILLION M&MS.

A machine packaging M&M's candies at a Mars factory in France.
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

That works out to 4 million M&Ms a minute. That’s almost enough made each day to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, which would need about 2.4 billion M&Ms in order to become a deliciously eccentric Olympic event.

46. THE KIT KAT JINGLE WILL GET STUCK IN YOUR HEAD.

A woman with her hands over her ears, looking annoyed.
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Researchers determined that the Kit Kat jingle—"Gimme a break / Gimme a break / Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar"—is one of the most common earworms.

47. MIKE AND IKE CANDY DEBUTED IN 1940.

A bunch of Mike and Ike candies.
Erin McCarthy

Since then, the candy has been made in almost 40 different flavors, from the original fruit mix (orange, cherry, lemon, and lime) to more unusual ones such as cotton candy and root beer float.

48. SALT WATER TAFFY IS GENERALLY NOT SALTY, WATERY, OR MADE FROM SALTWATER.

A few pieces of salt water taffy.
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So why the name? According to New Jersey legend: In 1883, a storm hit the Atlantic City boardwalk, flooding several candy shops in the process. When a girl went up to a candy counter afterward looking for a treat, the disgruntled proprietor jokingly told her only “saltwater taffy” was left. The name stuck, and today’s salt water taffy still echoes the store owner’s sarcastic comment. These days, you can buy Halloween flavors from some retailers.

49. OTTO SCHNERING INVENTED BOTH THE BABY RUTH AND THE BUTTERFINGER.

A bunch of Butterfinger candy bars in a box.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As owner of the Curtiss Candy Company, Otto "U.S. Candy Bar King" Schnering achieved success with the Baby Ruth candy bar first; he followed it up with Butterfinger, which got its name from a public contest and was another smash hit.

50. HERSHEY, PENNSYLVANIA—HOME TO THE WORLD HEADQUARTERS OF THE HERSHEY CHOCOLATE COMPANY—WAS NAMED FOLLOWING A FAILED NAMING CONTEST.

A street light shaped like a Hershey Kiss in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
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In 1904, the newly created town hosted a contest to pick its new name, and the winner was "Hersheykoko." The post office (and many locals, including founder Milton Hershey's wife) rejected the name, and they eventually went with the more straightforward "Hershey."

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

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This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

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Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
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Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

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If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
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While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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