To know how a favorite food is made is to potentially ruin that food for yourself forever. But in the case of Jelly Bellys, balls of sugar made to taste like popcorn, cocktails and baby wipes, among other things, there is a good chance you’ll never really know how they came to be. The FDA, with its moody regulations and clubby code of conduct, ensures a person can only get about halfway to knowing how an artificial food is made. As it turns out, the first half is harrowing enough.
When I recently began my research into Jelly Belly, maker of my favorite treat, Google suggested a term I didn’t know I wanted to search: “jelly belly factory tour.” I took the suggestion, and was directed to a page of the Jelly Belly website where I could find out more about taking a tour at the company’s original factory in California, which turns out to be 40 minutes from my house. With this, I began to imagine an experience similar to my mother’s when she went to work at a donut shop (she never ate a donut again). But I pressed on. The page contained a few seasonal announcements in a larger-than-normal font size (“Celebrate Ronald Reagan’s Birthday at Jelly Belly! Click here for details!”) The tour description read as follows: “Step into our factory and smell the aroma of chocolate, peach, cinnamon, pineapple, or whatever is being cooked up that day…Jelly Belly tour guides will show you a real working factory where we cook up over 150 different sweet treats. Learn the secrets to how we create the legendary Jelly Belly jellybean, and discover why it takes more than a week to make a single bean.” I would later learn that it takes between seven and 21 days to make a single bean, depending on the flavor.
One of the newest additions to the Jelly Belly family is a Coldstone Creamery line of jellybeans, which mimic some of the flavors found at that ice-cream parlor where, as most people are now aware, ice cream is mixed together on a stone slab with candy, pieces of cake, sprinkles and other toppings. The Birthday Cake Remix flavor of jellybean is white with colored dots that resemble confetti. On the Jelly Belly site, people are allowed to rate Jelly Belly beans and assign them various “pros,” “cons” and “best uses.” Examples of some of these “best uses” are “curb cravings,” “candy bowl,” and “special treat.” One “verified buyer” remarked of the Birthday Cake Remix flavor: “[T]he flavor is kind of unidentifiable — it tastes artificial, with an unpleasant aftertaste, and it doesn’t remind me of birthday cake at all.” This is no skeptic though. The reviewer continues: “Sorry Jelly Belly — I’m still a big fan, just not of this flavor!” Another reviewer is more positive: “I would recommend this to any fan of ice cream.”
The final flourish of the Jelly Belly and other jellybeans — what makes them shiny and specific — is the shell, which is a syrup comprised of modified food starch and sugar. “Modified food starch” is an umbrella term, since the ways in which food starch is modified are manifold, but apparently always involve acid. The food in the starch also varies. Many companies don’t outright tell you what grain its modified food starch is made with. In one product, it could be a combination of corn starch and wheat starch. It could vary from month to month. You just don’t know, and companies aren’t legally required to tell you, though some do, including Jelly Belly. The company says that its products are gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, and Kosher; its modified food starch is made with corn.
No one necessarily demanded that the jellybean be smooth and shiny, but its appeal is certainly greater than if it were an uneven, oblong crystalline mound. Modified food starch, which usually appears in the ingredients list as the letter “E” followed by a four-digit number, like E1400 (dextrin, a roasted food starch that contains hydrochloric acid, and is used to make foods crisp), is rather magical in this way. Not only can it help make a jellybean smooth and shiny; it can serve as the replacement for fat in reduced-fat foods, such as sausage or cheese. Another kind of modified food starch, carboxymethylated starch, is used in wallpaper adhesive. Modified food starch is often used in dried cheese sauce so that the sauce won’t become lumpy when added to hot water or milk. Anyone who has made a cheese sauce from scratch knows that the process is delicate and relatively slow; modified food starch is, among other things, an edible shortcut for the hurried or lazy.
In spite of the variety of frightening names modified food starch goes by — three others are hydroxypropylated starch, cationic starch, and octenyl succinic anhydride starch — not all are direct threats because they don’t all end up in food. The ones we do eat appear to be safe, in the way that some experts say cell phones appear to be safe. But if Apple recommends the iPhone be held about an inch away from your head when making phone calls, perhaps the best way to eat products like Jelly Bellys is to chew them for awhile, taking a minute or two to appreciate the alchemy that created them, then spit them back out like a wad of tobacco. The FDA does not require food companies to disclose the chemicals that are used to turn “regular” food starch — whatever that might be — into modified food starch.
The original Jelly Belly factory is located in Fairfield, California, a city in the northeastern part of the Bay Area, equidistant from Sacramento and San Francisco. Fairfield has a population of slightly more than 100,000 and is also home to a Budweiser brewery and a Clorox factory. The Jelly Belly factory looks like any company headquarters: manicured, bright green lawns, beds of hardy, colorful flowers, and an unobstructed view of the highway. Affixed to a small mound of grass to the left of the visitors’ entrance is the company’s giant insignia: a flat, red, jellybean-shaped slab with the words “Jelly Belly” printed in thick yellow cursive. When I arrived at the factory one sunny afternoon recently, a couple of children were lying prostrate on the slab. Nearby, a family was sitting on the grass with a stroller full of bags of candy they’d purchased at the factory store, which sells an array of confections greater than what the company actually makes on a given day.
On the free factory tour, members of the public are required to wear old-fashioned paper hats similar to those donned by employees of In N Out Burger and Johnny Rockets. The tour was briefly delayed because we hadn’t screamed loud enough in response to the tour guide’s question, “Are you ready?!?!” She asked us again, satisfied with the second reaction. Everybody “should be more excited” about “sugar and all that happiness,” she said.
Like a group of company executives, the tour group made its way around a viewing balcony situated above the facility and separated from it by glass. The first part of the factory, where beans are sorted and packaged, smelled like Tootsie Rolls. No more than 12 employees were visible. The sound of the beans being funneled in and out of hoppers for sorting was so loud that it was hard to hear the tour guide, or the informational video displayed from TVs hanging from the ceiling.
At several points during the tour, the guide handed out samples of complete and partially-made Jelly Bellys. The first was a fully-formed Chocolate-Covered Strawberry-flavored bean. A young girl remarked that it tasted “like gum,” and her mother agreed.
The video covered the history of the company from the beginning of the last century to the 1970s, which marked the “invention” of the Jelly Belly, an interesting word choice for a company whose motto is “Get Real. Get Jelly Belly.” The voiceover actor informed us that Ronald Reagan helped the company achieve prominence when he was governor of California because he turned to Jelly Bellys to help him quit smoking, and apparently handed a bowl of them around to staffers before making any major decisions. “We owe your company a special thanks for helping to keep our state running smoothly,” he once wrote to Jelly Belly.
Midway through the tour we hovered above a dismal-looking storage room with no signs of human life within. Stacked a couple of dozen feet high were 50-pound bags of Cargill Salt and C&H Pure Cane Granulated Sugar and 2000-pound bags of an unidentifiable white substance. “Corn starch!” the tour guide declared, when no one guessed it. Gleefully, she went on to explain that the factory goes through 10,000 pounds of the substance — and 50,000 pounds of sugar — each day.
“I don’t think I’d ever be able to work in a factory,” a teenage boy said to his father as we watched a man drive a forklift around the room where the beans are “cooked” in shiny metal devices that look like doorless washing machines. The man on the forklift honked every time he approached a blind corner, which was every corner, because the perimeter of the room was stacked high with trays full of shell-less Pina Colada-flavored Jelly Bellys, which without their lacquered shells look like golden raisins. Meanwhile, other employees on the floor scooped sugar out of large white Brute trash bins and into the jellybean washing machines, wheeling the bins from one washing machine to the next. The voiceover actor told us that certain Jelly Belly recipes take longer to perfect. The Kiwi flavor of bean, for example, was one of the hardest to create because, he said enthusiastically, “the flavor of the kiwi fruit is so delicate and fresh!”
In the next room were stacks of cardboard boxes labeled “kirmess discs #13” in black handwriting. Here, we were given samples of an Apple Pie Jelly Belly that didn’t have its shell on yet. Not surprisingly, this treat was unsatisfying — as anticlimactic as a single bite of cotton candy, and far less sweet. The aftertaste that remained a few minutes after eating it was similar to envelope adhesive.
Before being able to eat any more fully formed Jelly Bellys, we had to learn how the center of a jellybean became a Jelly Belly. The process is called “engrossing.” The beans are engrossed, i.e., covered with syrup and funneled into a grated cylinder, where they rotate deafeningly around in a process “similar to polishing rocks.” They are then placed into white trays, where they sit for three days. Some flavors have to be covered with cardboard during this “resting phase,” the tour guide explained, because their colors fade under fluorescent light.
At the end of the tour, the guide offered everyone a small bag of assorted Jelly Bellys, which at 40 grams of sugar per pack are a healthier snack option than a can of Coke. I ate the whole thing. But there was still the unsolved mystery of the ingredients, only a few of which we’d seen on display in the factory. How did Jelly Belly get the jellybeans to taste so “real”?
At the sample bar near the entrance, every flavor was labeled with an ingredients list so long it seemed complete. But after trying a flavor called Baby Wipes from the company’s Bean Boozled line of products, which also includes the flavors Skunk Spray and Pencil Shavings, I was puzzled to read that this bean, which tasted exactly the way baby powder smells, contained only these items: sugar, corn starch, corn syrup, natural and artificial flavors, beeswax, and carnauba wax. I wanted to know what was meant by “natural and artificial flavors,” but assumed Jelly Belly was under no legal obligation to tell me, otherwise it would be right there on the package. What was that cryptic box labeled “kirmess discs #13,” circling around a conveyer belt in the room where the tour guide made the factory machines “wave” at us? Is a kirmess disc a “natural” or “artificial” flavor? (Google did not help with this one.)
On the way out, I browsed through the guestbook. The comments were all brief, but full of praise. A recent comment from a visitor named Miggy from the Philippines stood out: C.O.L.O.R.F.U.L., he or she wrote. Stay flyyyyy.