The story of M&Ms is one of familial strife. As a boy, Forrest Mars Sr. barely knew his father, the candy tycoon and Mars, Inc. founder Frank C. Mars, but the two were reunited when Forrest was an adult. Under his father’s guidance, Forrest supervised the development of candy bars like Three Musketeers and Snickers. All seemed to be going well between the formerly distant father and son until Forrest decided that their company should expand into new territories both geographically and confectionarily.
After taking a buyout from his father, Forrest went abroad, where as legend has it he saw English soldiers eating a small chocolate pellet with a candy coating. The coating, as we all now know, kept the chocolate from melting in the soldiers’ hands. Inspired, Forrest introduced the M&M to the world in 1941. Following the death of his father, Frank returned to the family business, merging M&M and Mars, Inc into one sweet company in 1964.
My own M&M-related familial discord began almost a decade before I was born when holiday M&Ms were introduced in 1986. Every December, my mom puts out a bowl of red and green M&Ms. The bowl itself is glass with a gold rim and it’s shaped like a Christmas tree. My mother takes this sweet treat very seriously, dutifully refilling the bowl whenever it's running low on candies and making sure that it is one of the first things that comes out from the red and green storage boxes that hold all of our Christmas decorations.
Whatever image this is conjuring up for you — one of both literal and metaphorical sweetness, maternal love, what have you — it is crucial for me to tell you that it is rooted in the thinking of a madwoman. My mother believes one thing about holiday M&Ms and it is this:
They taste better than regular M&Ms because they are “fresher.”
When asked for comment, she said, “They are absolutely fresher because they only sell them in November and December.” She provided no further explanation in that particular message, but over the years I have heard this argument from her every December. It goes like this: Since they have to make more reds and greens especially for the season, you are more likely to be eating M&Ms fresh off the conveyor belt when you open a bag of holiday M&Ms.
Is she right? I reached out to a representative for M&Ms, who stopped responding to me after I told him I was asking questions because my mom had a pet theory. You might expect a candy company to have a sense of journalistic whimsy, especially around the holidays, but that is not the case.
Nevertheless, I set out to do my own research. I procured two bags of M&Ms: one regular brown bag filled with the standard six colors of candies and a red bag with a big image of the red M&M in a Santa hat giving a sort of sarcastic look. Upon inspection, both bags listed the exact same ingredients and nutritional information, but with different expiration dates. The holiday M&Ms claimed to be good until July 2022, whereas the contents of the regular bag were best before October 2022. This is the first strike against the “freshness” of the holiday M&Ms.
The next step was to administer a blind taste test to see if the “freshness” alleged by my mother could be detected by people who think that all M&Ms taste the same. Of the four people who participated in the experiment, only two could correctly identify which M&M was which. Those are, frankly, horrible results that would not stand up to any peer review. A 50 percent chance of being correct and only 50 percent of participants got it right? Inconclusive. Another L for holiday M&Ms.
But by some Christmas miracle, I tasted a difference. Whether that’s because I’ve been eating them for my entire life and have convinced myself that my mom is right, or because there is some actual difference in taste, we will never know. But to my senses, the holiday M&Ms had a stronger chocolate aroma, a richer quality of chocolate, and a crunchier outer shell. With no official comment from the Mars company, I have no one to believe but my own flesh and blood. And you know what? I trust her, because if I know one thing, it’s that she probably wouldn’t lie to me, and she definitely wouldn’t push me out of our family candy business.