Candy Experiments: A Brilliant Way to Use Up Unwanted Junk Food on Halloween

by Loralee Leavitt

I loved candy when I was a kid, but when I became a mother, I worried about my kids eating too much of the stuff. Still, I’ve never banned it from our home. Now, when my children come home on Halloween night, examine their candy, and go to bed without asking to eat a single piece, it’s not because I’ve forbidden it. It’s because they have better ideas about what to do with it.

It began with a simple question three years ago, when I was overwhelmed by our collection of Halloween candy. An afternoon with too-generous coworkers, a church Trunk-or-Treat (i.e., collecting candy at every car in a full parking lot), and a subsequent trick-or-treating expedition up our street had provided my four-year-old princess and two-year-old cowboy with mountains of candy. But since the candies had been the gifts of kind friends, and of elderly neighbors on fixed incomes, I didn’t want to throw them all away. Instead, I decided to dole them out one piece at a time. Handing out pieces after lunch was painful—the bowl loomed enormous atop my fridge, and I knew that at this rate we’d be eating candy for months.

Then, as my daughter Katherine poured out a box of Nerds, she asked the life-changing question:

“What would happen if I put these in water?”

I almost missed the moment. I was cleaning up the lunch dishes, and didn’t want to get out another one. Besides, the experiment sounded messy and wasteful (even though I’d just been agonizing about how to get rid of the stuff). I brushed her question aside, hoping she’d forget it. Instead, she asked again. I got her a white, unspillable mug, filled it with water, and set it down in front of her. She poured in her strawberry Nerds, examined them, stirred them into something the color of raspberry lemonade, and examined the cup again. Then I dumped it down the sink.

That was our first candy experiment.

I was ready to let the idea die, but a few days later Katherine asked again. I tried again to brush her aside, but she insisted. So I pulled out three sturdy white mugs, unspillable, unbreakable, made for easy candy viewing. Three experiments, I thought, would be enough for one day. Then, finally, I realized what an opportunity I was about to waste—and rushed back to the dish cupboard.

Before long, the table had disappeared under bowls, cups, glasses, mugs, ramekins, pie tins, and anything else that held water. Katherine and Alex were dissolving candy as fast as they could unwrap it, as our kitchen became a chemistry lab. We’d begun our candy adventure.

I’ve always loved science. I fell in love with chemistry at summer camp in eighth grade, where we made crystals, tested pH, learned about the periodic table, and watched our professor light up the lecture room with glowing concoctions. I studied more chemistry in high school, and minored in physics in college. I’d always meant to pass on that love of science to my children with visits to museums, studies of backyard insects, and by building paper airplanes, growing seeds, and mixing kitchen chemicals. But those ambitions had been buried by mom stuff: dishes, driving, chasing after kids. When Katherine began dropping candy in water bowls, all those dreams came flooding back. Here was my chance.

I took it. “Do you think candy dissolves faster in hot water or in cold water?” I asked. “Let’s find out.”

I poured bowls of hot and cold and we experimented. Since they were dumping everything in the water, we learned pretty fast which candies sank and which floated. “Why do Three Musketeers bars float?” I asked. We opened one up and saw the air bubbles. “Does licorice dissolve?” We tried, but after days of waiting, fragments of licorice still drifted in the water. I pointed out the flour in the list of ingredients. “Can we mix colors?” We dissolved blue and yellow candies in the same bowl, stirred, and watched the solution turn green. We weighed out candy to match the sugar content listed on packages, and learned that one carton of fruit yogurt contained as much sugar as a small pack of Skittles and a pack of Smarties. We were covering temperature, density, dissolving, color, and nutrition—and having a great time!

While I knew what to expect from a hot/cold test, some discoveries astonished all of us. In our test of M&Ms, tiny m’s floated to the surface of the water. Submerged Yogos cracked open like dinosaur eggs, shedding little bits of white shell. Smarties took hours to dissolve. Marshmallows didn’t dissolve at all, even when we let them float for days. Katherine even managed to mix strawberry and grape Nerds to create a solution the color of my grandmother’s plum punch.

My kids were so excited by their experiments that our candy collection rapidly dwindled. Suddenly, instead of worrying about eating too much candy, I wondered if we were wasting too much. Wouldn’t my kids miss their treats? Wouldn’t I? I set aside some of my favorites for later eating: Butterfinger, a crunchy childhood favorite; Almond Joy, the favorite campout treat in my husband’s family; Milky Way bars, the candy most coveted in my own childhood days of trick-or-treat trading. I turned the rest over to my children; everything that remained was experimented on to oblivion.

I was still amazed by how little candy they’d eaten. Our Halloween collection was gone, and the kids didn’t miss it. In fact, most of the treats I’d reserved sat untouched in their tin.

But when Halloween came around the following year, I didn’t think it would work again. They were both now a year older and smarter, old enough to realize that experimenting on candy meant not eating it. I was still recovering from a September bout with pneumonia, and didn’t have the energy to encourage experiments if they didn’t want to do them.

They didn’t need to be encouraged. All October, Alex asked, “Can we do candy experiments after Halloween?” He was ready to start the minute we’d finished trick-or-treating. Katherine was more reluctant, but sorted out favorites to eat later, and donated her discards. We were off again.

This time we started by using our senses, feeling the candies through their wrappers to see if we could guess what each looked like. We checked labels to see if we could predict what the candy might do in tests. We got bowls of water and repeated all our old experiments. But would they be enough? I decided I needed some new tricks to hold my children’s attention. I surveyed experts I knew, including my programmer husband, my MIT-educated engineering brother, a former chemist, doctors and dentists. I searched online and learned about experiments in density and chromatography. Armed with a package of coffee-filter paper and an old lab book to record our results in, we were ready to go.

The previous year, we’d mixed colors; this year, we separated them with chromatography. I found instructions online for cutting out a rectangle of coffee-filter paper, labeling it with pencil, and dabbing on it a tiny dot of dissolved M&M coloring. I followed the instructions exactly, with as small a dot of color as I could manage; my children’s papers had great blobs of color. We stood the papers up on edge in a half-inch of salt water and watched the water seep up and separate the dyes. It worked great—at least with my kids’ papers. M&M brown separated into a rainbow of colors: pink at the bottom, blue at the top. On my paper, the colors were almost too faint to see. To get better results, I had to copy my kids. (I’ve since learned that chemists use small samples to measure the separation more precisely; because we cared only that the colors separated, for our purposes, the more color, the better.)

I also found instructions online for making a density rainbow with layers of colored sugar water. Since candy is basically colored sugar, I decided to adapt the recipe, using different amounts of candy for each color. Dissolving 25 Skittles in three tablespoons of water wasn’t easy, but my kids loved helping out by stirring. (Stirring is one of their favorite parts of candy experiments.) After too-hastily pouring solutions into muddy color, I let my husband take over. With steady hands, he poured our purple Skittle water into a glass, then gently poured the green water over the back of a spoon so it floated on the purple. We added yellow, orange, and five-Skittle red, and ended up with rainbow layers of color. The Skittles slogan, “Taste the Rainbow,” took on a whole new meaning.

Another mom, a former chemist, suggested using baking soda to test candies for their acid content. I’d loved learning about pH at science camp and, afterward, testing everything in my house, so we decided to give it a try. Since acid tastes sour, we knew that all sour candy contains acid of some sort. We dissolved several kinds of sour candies in water, breaking them up with a spoon and then stirring to dissolve them completely. Then we spooned baking soda into each solution. It worked. Super-sour Lemonheads produced lots of bubbles. Lemon Skittles and lemon Starbursts hardly bubbled at all, so they had less acid than we’d thought. The acid test became one of our favorites, and it’s still one of the first experiments my kids tell their friends about.

We invited friends over to experiment with candy, and expanded our field of research when one boy wanted to try heating things up. Marshmallow Peeps grew enormous in the microwave. In the oven, Jolly Ranchers melted into bubbling puddles, while jawbreakers emerged unchanged. Some kinds of taffy melted into blobs of sugar with shiny oil spots that turned into waxy white puddles when they cooled. We read the label: hydrogenated palm-kernel oil. Yum.

My children had their own research to pursue, as well. Color-conscious Katherine asked if she could paint pictures with candy. At first I was reluctant, worried about the mess, which sounded even worse than using regular paints. But remembering how we’d started on our journey, I said yes. Soon Katherine was laying wet candies on paper towels to produce tie-dye effects, or using candies like crayons to paint yellow suns and orange-red flowers. Alex enjoyed filling a bowl with as much candy as he could, then stirring it to make candy soup.

We went through our candy so fast I e-mailed friends to beg them for their Halloween discards, and even hunted Target’s unused Halloween candy all the way to Goodwill. (Those Goodwill Skittles made beautiful density rainbows!)

We had so much fun with experiments that we kept coming back to them throughout the year. We tested our Valentine candy and our Easter candy. (Sadly, M&Ms’ Easter colors turned out to be too pale for chromatography.) Katherine and Alex picked up all the candy they could find at the Fourth of July parade, telling everyone it was for experiments. We put chocolate bars in the oven and in summer sunshine to make them “bloom,” separating out streaks of cocoa butter. We dropped candy into soda to see if any other kinds produced as many bubbles as Mentos. (Mentos always won.) Then we made soda geysers by adding Mentos to bottles of Diet Coke. We chewed Wintergreen Life Savers in the dark to watch for flashes of light. And we filled up our lab notebook.

When last Halloween rolled around, I was finally excited about trick-or-treating. As we collected sour candies we’d never seen before, my kids exclaimed, “These’ll be great for the acid test!” Even I begged for more when we saw color-changing Skittles dropping into our bags. When we got home, the kids promptly began sorting their loot, and continued sorting the next day, Sunday, poring over the colorful wrappers, bagging their piles in ziplock bags. “Look, Mom, sour AirHeads! Bet they have a lot of acid.” “Look, Mom, a new kind of Lemonheads. Let’s try the acid test on those.” “We got lots of Milk Duds—what can we do with those?” Then we started experimenting, testing the acidity of our new sour candies and trying to float candy bars we’d never seen before. We got a new lab notebook to record our results, and we let my 18-month-old daughter, Rebecca, join the fun. It wasn’t till the following Wednesday, when Katherine wondered how her kneaded and stretched grape bubble gum might taste, that they asked to eat any.

Yes, I still let my children eat candy. Wintergreen Lifesavers give off flashes of light, but to see it, you have to crunch them between your teeth. Testing for sour acid doesn’t mean much if you haven’t tasted Lemonheads. (We once bought a bag of Sour Jacks for acid experiments; it was nearly a month before we tasted them and learned that the only sour part is the coating.) As my daughter says about her favorite kinds of candy, “We like to eat all of them, just sometimes.” But we don’t eat candy very often. When we get out our candy, instead of sweet treats we see subjects for experiments, art supplies, sticky building blocks. It’s much too fun to play with.

Other children are starting to have the same reaction. Last Halloween week I presented candy experiments to six different groups of children, informing them that the candy was not for eating but for testing. Children prepared M&M chromatography papers, made taffy cars with M&M wheels, built structures with Starburst squares, mixed colors with unmentionable names, and tested everything they could unwrap for acid—all without begging or sneaking a single piece to eat.

This is happening in homes across the country. A preschool teacher in Utah told me her students were more excited about bringing in their candy for experiments than they were about eating it. A mother in California found her children already conducting experiments the morning after Halloween. A Seattle mom reported that she and her kids “can’t stop doing these.”

My children have learned a lot of science from their candy experiments. They can tell you that hot water dissolves candy faster than cold; that sugar will dissolve in cold water but chocolate won’t; and that sour candy contains acid. They can tell you that M&M black is really concentrated M&M brown, and which kinds of candy are best for use as paints.

They’ve learned a bigger lesson, too. They’ve learned to follow their curiosity. And I’ve learned to let them—especially when they’re using up candy.

The Experiments

Listed below are just a few ideas to get started. Have fun, and let curiosity be your guide.

Acid Test: This experiment tests for the acid often found in sour candy.

Chocolate Bloom: Chocolate is made of cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and other ingredients that have been mixed together. Can you take them apart?

Color Separation (Chromatography): You know candy is colored with artificial dye. To see the different dyes for yourself, try this.

Density Rainbow: Sugar water is denser than water—the more sugar, the denser. This experiment shows you how to layer different densities into a rainbow.

Dissolving Hot/Cold: See if candy dissolves faster in hot or cold water.

Hidden Candy: Most candy is made from sugar, corn syrup, and flavorings. These ingredients are used to sweeten lots of different foods. Can you find the “hidden candy” in other varieties of food you eat?

Lifesaver Lights: Do wintergreen Lifesavers really make a spark in the dark?

Sink/Float Most: candy sinks in water, because sugar is denser than water.  But some will float. Why?

Oil Test: If you thought your candy was all sugar, think again. Many chewy candies also contain oil. This experiment uses heat to let you see the oil for yourself.

Pop Rocks: What’s the secret ingredient in the candy that crackles?

Sticky You: know candy can cling to your fingers—but how sticky can you make it?

For step-by-step instructions and more information about these experiments, visit

From Mothering Issue 162September-October 2010

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