Time to talk turkey about Valentine's Day candy — specifically, Valentine's Day candy conversation hearts!
Sure, we know they might not be anyone's first choice for the sweetest day of the year, but according to CandyStore.com, they're a full 9.5% of all candy sold for Feb. 14 — while heart-shaped boxes of chocolate are just 10.2%.
The miniature messaged sugar treats have been around since the 1860s, when Necco (the folks who gave us those candy wafers everyone got so worried might disappear when the company dissolved) began issuing them as Sweethearts. They went through a whole phase of being adult-oriented (wedding/marriage messages) treats that were handed out at parties but have over the years become the guilty pleasure of Valentine lovers everywhere, with versions put out by Brach's and SweeTarts, too.
The originals — known as Sweethearts — did do a vanishing act in 2019, when Spangler Candy Company took over the process, and in 2020 there was a bit of a reboot bumble, but for 2021, Sweethearts are poised to come roaring (or whispering sweet nothings) back with new phrases that echo classic songs.
So, we at TODAY Food started wondering: With only a limited amount of stomach real estate in anyone's Valentine's Day, how do you know which conversation hearts to grab and which to wave goodbye to? It's quite the candy lover's conundrum.
But, not to worry — we did the tough task of taste-testing for you. With select boxes chosen from local stores (SweeTarts) and ones sent direct from Brach's and Spangler, we consulted the experts at CandyStore.com to make sure we knew what to look for as we sampled.
"Conversation hearts are by no means a monolith," CandyStore.com's marketing director Ben George told TODAY. "There are many varying types and brands that meet the basic criteria. The discerning conversation heartist will want to observe some of the key differentiating factors that separate the best from the rest."
Specifically, George suggested that while trying to examine the value of a candy conversation heart, it was important to look at five key categories:
Hardness: It should be crisp and breakable, and not break your teeth
Chalkiness: On the second or third chew, is it dry, grainy or smooth? Is there an aftertaste?
Readability: How clear is the message? Does it seem computer-generated or hand-written?
Vibrancy of color & flavor: Colors and flavors, even if throwback tastes to previous decades, should be bold, rich and full.
Shape consistency & integrity: Are the sizes the same? Are they chipped and broken, or whole?
Now that we've come down from the sugar high, TODAY is ready to report the results. Here's what the hearts we tested (Sweethearts, SweeTarts and Brach's) had to say to us:
This year, Spangler has added 21 new sayings that riff on classic songs, calling them Sweethearts Karaoke.
Hardness: Crisp to the point of staleness. One tester: "Like a 15-year-old marshmallow."
Chalkiness: Not grainy, but required prying from the side of the mouth.
Readability: Fair to middling. Phrases are largely centered, sometimes bleeding and sometimes a bit too long for the heart. Randomly suggested phrases include "All of Me," "Ooo La La" and "Crush On U."
Vibrancy of color & flavor: About one shade brighter than regular pastel. Think "Miami Vice." The primary flavor is "sweet," not a specific fruit or spice. Banana came through, but was cloying. Overall it was like tasting bubblegum: clearly chemical, signaling taste but not exactly delivering it.
Shape consistency & integrity: Suggestive of hearts. Largely intact but some are chipped.
Brach's Tiny Conversation Hearts
Brach's sent several bags to taste from, but in trying to be consistent with the other options, we stuck with traditional conversation hearts.
Hardness: Excellent. They're both tough, then a bit tender, with a curious soft/hard toothfeel as you crunch through them, but they're not brittle.
Chalkiness: Not grainy or dry. No complaints.
Readability: Looks like a dot matrix printer. Only two of the 10 chosen have words in the center of the candy; most are cut off or invisible altogether. Word choice trends modern with "Totes" and "Bae," but also includes classics like "Cutie" and "Smile."
Vibrancy of color & flavor: Sticking with pastel, which is the theme, these are paler than Sweethearts. More "baby's room paint job" than "Miami Vice." Flavor was hit and miss: Lemon-Lime and Grape were so faint as to be undetectable, but the banana and orange flavors were quite pleasant. Cherry, however, tastes like cough syrup, while Wintergreen is like eating a Certs. Not recommended.
Shape Consistency & Integrity: Consistent shape; few broken or chipped.
Purchased from the drugstore shelf; undetermined if they're 2021 or 2020 vintage.
Hardness: Neither too hard nor too soft, but collapses into grains pretty fast, and those grains may blow your head off if you're not prepared. More on that in a minute.
Chalkiness: The heart loses its integrity almost immediately and becomes a sweet-sour sandy grit, but disappears in a respectable time.
Readability: These are the best of the bunch, but they're engraved, not printed on the surface. The messages are clear but a little plain-Jane: "Love U," "Maybe," "Yes," "Cuties," etc. Classic messages.
Vibrancy of color & flavor: Once again, pastel rules, but here think of sidewalk chalk colors. There's a faint marbled texture to the shiny surfaces that makes them stand out. The flavors are, as mentioned earlier, tart as all heck. There are whiffs of fruit but that's largely swallowed by the acidic bite of the candy. But there's a reason we usually consume SweeTarts one at a time in discs exponentially smaller than these hearts: They pack a punch. Maybe share one with your sweetie.
Shape consistency & integrity: The prettiest of 'em all. Perfectly shaped, no breaks. These are heart-shaped with raised edges, but also swell on the front and back to create a rounded, 3D look on both sides. Plus, they're shiny.
This year at least, Brach's is clearly superior, unless you want to pucker up from your candy as well as for a kiss, in which case, SweeTarts is the way to go. We're rooting hard for Sweethearts to get back in the game, as they are the originals.
But, however you choose to send a message to your loved ones this year, have a happy Valentine's Day. After all, it's hard to go wrong when there's sugar involved.