Food by VICE

My Love for Necco's Original Formula Sweethearts Caused an Existential Crisis

Ever since Necco changed their recipe in 2010, the classic candy hearts haven't been as crunchy—and the originals are getting harder to find.

by Liz Feezor
Feb 13 2019, 10:00pm

Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.

Moving on has never come easy to me. Life-altering, self-inflicted change like career pivots or cross-country moves don’t trouble me, but my music playlist has not fundamentally changed in 15 years and the loss of trivial things that I return to largely for nostalgic reasons causes existential panic.

In a choice more befitting an octogenarian than the millennial I really am, my favorite candy of all time is the original formula Necco Sweethearts, chalky, heavenly drops of deliciousness that are arguably the most maligned seasonal sweet. For many people, conversation hearts are just a corny symbol of an outdated holiday. Although they’re tolerated annually as delivery vehicles for silly sayings like ‘MY MAN’ and ‘ONE KISS,’ people rarely appreciate them as the kind of candy you would seek out. But I do.

Necco Sweethearts’ origins date back to the Civil War era—and, as some would argue, they taste like it too—when the New England Confectionery Company launched what would become their signature Necco Wafers, the precursor to Sweethearts. The conversational Sweethearts themselves debuted in 1900 as non-heart shapes that could accommodate longer messages like “How long shall I have to wait? Pray be considerate.”

In 2010, Necco changed the formula of the original hearts, ostensibly to modernize their image alongside a slate of new messages that saw “FAX ME” swapped out for “TEXT ME.” In so doing, the texture of the candy changed from “delightfully crunchy” to “mushy tabs of sadness,” and the taste became at once tarter and more cloying. The lineup of flavors was also updated, with banana and wintergreen getting replaced by blue raspberry and green apple.

"The original Sweethearts were a bit chalky," Vice President Dave Smith said at the time. "Some people really like eating chalky, but the idea is that the new flavors and textures are much more candy-like, and you can enjoy them more because they taste a little better."

But “better” is subjective and in the years since the recipe change, I’ve searched for sources of the original formula Sweethearts with back stock, buying the lot whenever I could find them. A local grocery store chain somehow had a line on the original formula Necco hearts in bulk, and I used to be able to buy them there. But it’s the end of an era: When I inquired about their conspicuous absence this season, the store confirmed that their distributor didn’t have any supply this year. With Necco abruptly shuttering their factory last summer, only to be purchased by Spangler in September, the future of Sweethearts and other brand favorites remains murky.

Desperate for a dose of nostalgia some weeks ago, I scoured the internet for sources of my confectionary addiction. I found an eBay seller with a listing for “Necco hearts: ORIGINAL formula!” and ordered all $34-worth they had in stock. When the package arrived, I tore excitedly through the bubble mailer before catching a glimpse of a telltale bright blue color sprinkled throughout. What I’d received in the mail was four pounds of disappointment: the newer formula hearts, with the signature blue raspberry flavor. I, along with the five other original formula Necco conversation heart-enthusiasts out there, am crushed.

Necco Sweethearts

There are several imitators on the market—like Brach’s conversation hearts that come in large, tiny, and sour—but none compare to the original suite of flavors and unmistakable crunch of pre-2010 Necco Sweethearts. Kids growing up today will never know the satisfying crisp of a banana-flavored Necco heart in its perfect original state. It’s hard for me to stomach that something that has been a part of Valentine's Day for so long (longer than any of us have been alive!) might be gone forever.

Granted, Necco isn’t dead: Spangler has vowed to continue the hearts’ legacy, but without the 11-month production period required to make the billions of hearts consumed during the six-week Valentine’s selling period, 2019 is the first year in well over a century without Necco Sweethearts. New ownership always means change, and waiting until early 2020 to find out what’s to become of the seasonal confectionery mainstay makes me nervous. The fate of a favorite childhood candy has also forced a bigger, scarier question within myself: Am I just terribly nostalgic, or does my refusal to accept something so frivolous mean that I’m bad at change in general?

I drive a stick shift car to pick up physical copies of books from the library (blasting my ancient playlist, natch) because it’s living history; it gives me a sense of stability and control in a world that never stops changing. And when I bite into an original recipe Necco conversation heart for the first time each year, releasing the familiar crunch that’s impossible to replicate, it brings back the comfort of childhood memories: anxiously awaiting the arrival of my favorite candy in grocery stores and anticipating the outsized amount of sugar I’d have access to at the Valentine’s Day celebrations in elementary school. It’s easy to forget that, when you’re a kid, candy is currency—a drug, a life force, and, sometimes, the best life gets. The original Necco Sweethearts is a reminder of what that felt like. I hope they’re not gone forever.

Valentine's Day