The Love Affair Between Utahans and Hi-Chew Candy

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The Love Affair Between Utahans and Hi-Chew Candy

If you have a sweet tooth, there’s one state in the U.S. you definitely have to visit: Utah. The state eats around 85% more candy than the country’s average, and soda shops selling creative, often dairy- and sugar-laced sodas have become a Utah staple.

This love of sugar did not appear in a vacuum, though. Mormons represent over half of Utah’s population, and sugar has played an important role in the LDS church for over a century. It all started when then-LDS president Wilford Woodruff told his followers that God had instructed him to create a sugar company. Mormons, who were persecuted at the time because of their religion, wanted to become more economically self-sufficient, and harvesting and processing sugar beets eventually became a viable source of income for the community.

These days, a love of sugar is still palpable in Utah, which some attribute to the fact that sugar is a vice in which Mormons are allowed to indulge, unlike alcohol or caffeine. But Teruhiro “Terry” Kawabe, Chief Representative for the USA & President & CEO of Morinaga America, Inc., the company that makes the popular, colorful Japanese candy Hi-Chew, didn’t know that when he was looking at sales data for the candy in the United States.

“Around 2010, we began to notice that Hi-Chew sales in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas in Utah were reaching unprecedented levels,” says Kawabe. This was a surprise, he says, because the majority of sales within the U.S. were coming from areas with large Asian and Asian-American populations, particularly on the West Coast. “Salt Lake City didn’t at all align with our previous observations. Therefore, to see the emergence of a new Hi-Chew ‘hub’ was a shocking, but ultimately pleasant, surprise to us.”

However, the popularity of Hi-Chew in the state was not surprising to food scholar Haley McFadden, who lives in Utah. “I am not at all surprised to hear that Utah is such a prolific consumer of Hi-Chews. I love them!” she says. “We had a neighbor who never used to come over and visit, but he would leave a huge bag of Hi-Chews on our porch every few months. At work, I currently sit next to a guy who has a fish bowl full of Hi-Chews on his desk, and he has to refill it every other week.”

Kawabe wanted to get to the bottom of the sudden spike in Hi-Chew sales in Utah. “After digging deeper into the phenomenon, our internal teams discovered that the above-average sales in Utah could be a direct result of Mormon missionaries, who discovered Hi-Chew while in Japan and brought back a variety of Hi-Chew products to share with friends and family,” he explains. “As Mormon culture is very community-based, the practice of sharing a favorite confectionery product with loved ones is nothing out of the ordinary.”

McFadden echoes that sentiment. When it comes to desserts, she says, “Mormon cooking isn’t really about complex flavors… It’s about simplicity and making sure everyone gets something to eat. Many gatherings are large, and making large quantities of desserts with expensive or specialty ingredients or techniques is just not practical.” Packaged candy, then, is a perfect, accessible way of sharing sweets with a church group or community.

The love Utahans have for Hi-Chew is a testament to the power of food to break down cultural boundaries, to bring different cultures together in unexpected, albeit delicious, ways. “To say that the residents of Salt Lake City were an unexpected demographic is putting it lightly,” says Kawabe, “but we’re thrilled to have brought joy and made such an impact on their community.”

The cultures of Japan and Utah may not seem like they have much in common on the surface, but look a bit closer, and a shared love for the soft, chewy, fruity candy connects these two distant locales across an ocean and a language barrier. Now that’s sweet.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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