Food by VICE

The Science Behind Willy Wonka Isn't as Far-Fetched as It Seems

How close are we to creating a gobstopper whose flavor is actually everlasting? What will the first real-life Fizzy Lifting Drinks be made of?

by Jelisa Castrodale
Oct 29 2016, 4:00pm
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Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

When Gene Wilder died in late August, becoming the latest casualty in this trash fire that we've called the 2016 calendar, I responded the same way that so many of us did: I pulled out my DVD of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and let myself be alternately charmed and terrified by his most iconic character. Wilder simply was Willy Wonka, the top-hat wearing, teacup eating, child-maiming candy magnate—and there's no remake that could make me think otherwise.

Every time I watch that movie, I spend half of its runtime imagining which of my gross elementary school classmates would've been dropped down a garbage chute and the other half wishing that I could've gotten my own grubby little hands on some of Wonka's edible prototypes.

The idea of making real versions of Willy Wonka's candy isn't new—in fact, that's how the movie was made in the first place. The entire flick was financed by Quaker Oats, largely as a way to build an audience for its new Wonka-branded products, the Willy Wonka Super Skrunch bar and Willy Wonka Peanut Butter Oompas. Both candies tanked, possibly because kids weren't interested in eating candies associated with a fictional sociopath. (Quaker later sold the rights to Willy Wonka candy to Nestle, which still produces a line of Wonka-themed products, including Everlasting Gobstoppers).

The reclusive chocolatier's ambivalence toward potentially murdering children makes this as terrifying as any horror flick you'll be watching this Halloween, and it's especially suited for an evening when you're stuffing your face with candy.

So what about Wonka's onscreen candies? What would it take to make a lickable wallpaper that tastes like oranges, strawberries, and snozzberries? (Actually, you don't want to know what a snozzberry tastes like). How close are we to creating a gobstopper whose flavor is actually everlasting, or gum that tastes like a three-course dinner, with flavor evolving throughout the meal? I turned to a couple of experts to ask which of Wonka's candies could actually exist, and which were limited to our own imaginations. (I didn't ask about the chocolate river where Augustus Gloop presumably drowned; if you want to see an overweight kid trying to drink his weight in liquid chocolate, just stand beside the buffet at your local Golden Corral).

"Flavored wallpaper is easy to do, despite the fact that snozzberries aren't real berries," J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the James Beard Award-winning author of The Food Lab cookbook and column, said. "It's essentially the same technology as scratch-and-sniff stickers. You have little cells in there with flavorful compounds in them that, when you lick them, you break the walls and it releases them."

Because the perception of taste is also reliant on smell, Lopez-Alt explained, it would be easy for Wonka to essentially trick our brains into believing that printed pictures taste exactly like their real-life counterparts. "If you had an old scratch-and-sniff sticker that smelled like chocolate—and I had one—you've already got the olfactory stuff going on, so all you have to do is add a little bit of sugar and maybe something to give it a chocolaty mouthfeel," he said. "You'd just have to spray the paper with some sugar water and maybe add a little of stabilized fat to it that melts on your tongue and I think it would make it taste like chocolate. Wallpaper would be pretty straightforward."

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl actually wrote out his own tedious-sounding recipe for lickable wallpaper in his Revolting Recipes collection and, in 2012, Mischief PR and McVitie's teamed up to cover the walls of an elevator with lickable wallpaper that tasted like McVitie's own Jaffa Cakes. Despite their best efforts at sanitation, it had to taste a lot like communicable diseases too.

Some of the other candies are more complicated.

Shortly after the the five children arrived at Wonka's factory, they were each presented with an Everlasting Gobstopper. "You can suck them and suck them and suck them and they'll never get any smaller," he said. "Never!"

However, Esther Sussman, a research scientist at Ferrara Candy Company, said creating a sweet that never loses its flavor is beyond the realm of possibility. "If there was a sugar that would taste sweet but wouldn't dissolve, it would be possible, but the whole reason that [a jawbreaker] gets smaller is the sugar and the colors and the flavors are dissolving as you suck on it."

Sussman, whose company makes the Jaw Busters-brand jawbreakers, says that making a jawbreaker (or a gobstobber, if you're on the other side of the Atlantic) is a slow, deliberate process that takes more than three weeks to complete. "We start with a granule of sugar and it goes into what is called a pan, a big round bowl with an opening facing toward you," she explained. "You put the sugar in, it starts to turn and we add liquid sugar to build up the shell so it's a nice round piece. That's actually a 21-day process, to go from a tiny granule of sugar to maybe half the size of what you see in a Jaw Buster."

The colors and flavors are then added to the candy, one layer at a time, so both properties change as you suck it—and as the candy dissolves. That's why Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper won't really last one lick longer than any other jawbreaker.

READ MORE: I Was High on Amphetamines When I Served the Original Cast of Willy Wonka

Finally, there's the gum that approximates a three-course meal, the one that turned gum-chewing champion Violet Beauregarde into a giant blueberry. We have the technology to put the flavors of tomato soup, roast beef, baked potatoes and blueberry pie in one stick of gum, right?

"Based on what I've seen, it is very difficult to do, especially in gum," Sussman said. "Some gums, like Dentyne, have an outer shell, so if you put one flavor in there, you'd get that right away and then as you chew the gum it might stick around, or you might get a second flavor, but usually they mix together."

Six years ago, food scientist Dave Hart and his colleagues at the Institute of Food Research hoped that developments in nanotechnology might unlock the secret to making Wonka's magical sounding gum into a reality. In Hart's version, the flavors of the three individual courses would be separated by a thin layer of gelatin that would prevent them from overlapping on your tongue.

Although Hart theorized the process of making the gum, it doesn't seem to have made it beyond the planning stage. "The mechanism exists, but the technique and flavors need perfecting," he told the Daily Mail in 2010. If Hart's version were to exist, it would not create the feeling of being full, nor would it contain all of the macronutrients of an actual meal—so, no need to send anybody off to the juicing room.

"You can only pack so much into a stick of gum," she said. "I don't think you could ever have the amount of protein or vitamin C you get from tomato soup and a steak or turkey, but I think you could get some nutrient value of it."

OK, fine. But Charlie and his grandfather got in big trouble when they stole a few sips of Fizzy Lifting Drinks, which made them weightless enough to float to–and smudge–the factory ceiling. Could we at least have Fizzy Lifting Drinks? Science writer Kyle Hill says no way.

In a recent video for Nerdist, Hill explained that a Fizzy Lifting Drink would have to use hydrogen, the world's lightest gas, as its main ingredient. At an estimated weight of 50 kilograms (110 pounds), Charlie would have to chug more than the few sips he had in the film: He'd actually have to down 10.5 million bottles in order to go full NASA and float around the room. "For right now, Fizzy Lifting Drinks have to remain in a land of pure imagination, until Willy Wonka comes up with an even lighter gas worthy of mass-production in soda," Hill concluded.

Despite the fact that candy technology in the 21st century can't match Willy Wonka's circa-1971 imagination, we can still appreciate his contributions not just as a candymaker, but as a food scientist. "He does more science than magic," Lopez-Alt said. "There doesn't seem to be any magic involved. He obviously lives in a made-up world where science is a little bit different than it is in the real world, but I think his persona is sort of rooted in science, for sure."

Regardless, when it comes to candy, it sounds like we'll have to settle for lickable wallpaper—at least for now. I call first dibs on the strawberries.