How Do Pop Rocks Work and Are They a Hazard to Your Health?

Weird candies abounded in the ‘90s. Sure, you could stick to something normal like gummy bears, but why would you when you could choose Nerds or Fun Dip or the appropriately named Toxic Waste? The most controversial and dare-worthy choice of all: Pop Rocks. What was such a big deal about them?

What are Pop Rocks?

Proto Pop Rocks were invented in the 1950s by a chemist named William A. Mitchell. He created a candy that would dissolve on your tongue and create a popping effect, like little tiny fireworks for your tastebuds.

Pop Rocks became commercially available in 1975 with their three original flavors: cherry, grape, and orange. The candy is basically crystalized sugar with the consistency of gravel. It was obviously a hit with children. This commercial, complete with kids skateboarding, proved only the edgiest children were down to clown with Pop Rocks. 

The candy remained popular through the ‘90s when my sisters and I would eat them really close to each other’s faces so they would pop onto our cheeks. We were, and continue to be, demented little freaks.

How do Pop Rocks work?

Producers melt sugar to make Pop Rocks in a chamber that contains a lot of carbon dioxide. As the sugar cools and crystallizes, it solidifies around the carbon dioxide, creating little pockets of pressurized CO2. When the sugar dissolves in water or case saliva, the carbon dioxide is released, creating the popping noise. 

People erroneously believed that there was a chemical reaction happening within the candy but that is not true. Because of its fizzy nature, it was often equated to the kind of chemical reaction that happens when you mix vinegar and baking soda. The reality is it’s just a physical change; the sugar remains sugar and continues to dissolve on your tongue once the carbon dioxide is released.

Can Pop Rocks kill you?

Pop Rocks were nearly doomed from the start thanks to an urban legend that managed to spread throughout the United States. The legend goes that if you eat Pop Rocks and drink soda at the same time, the mixture in your stomach will create so much gas that you would explode. 

It went even further, claiming that this exact thing happened to a kid named Mikey. If you aren’t familiar, Life cereal had a very popular commercial campaign with a character named Mikey. His big brothers who were afraid to try the cereal would say, “Give it to Mikey. He’ll eat anything.” Inevitably, Mikey would eat the cereal and like it. The children rejoice.

Somehow, these two cultural phenomena collided, creating the tale that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials mixed Pop Rocks and Coke (because he’s the human equivalent of a garbage disposal) and it killed him. The legend got so crazy in Seattle that the FDA even set up a Pop Rocks hotline for concerned parents. 

Thankfully it isn’t true and has been disproven multiple times; our intrepid leader Link even gave it a shot once on Good Mythical Morning. Sure, there is a little bit of a reaction, but that is only because the carbon dioxide released in the Pop Rocks is added to the bubbles of the soda. But it is nowhere near enough force to make a stomach explode. So feel free to enjoy your Pop Rocks with a soda, worry free, while also enjoying the absurdity of the urban legend that to this day remains one of the best.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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