Our quirky preferences are driving the future of snacking and the most prominent manifestation of the trend is the pink Starburst. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post.
Photo: Jennifer Chase/For The Washington Post
Photo: Jennifer Chase/For The Washington Post

Pink Starbursts and brownie edges: How our quirky preferences are driving the future of snacking

About a year ago, my younger sister texted me a photo included in a clickbait listicle about "genius" food inventions: a plate of brownies at a bake sale, each individually wrapped square color-coded with a sticker to designate if it came from the corner, middle or edge of the pan. "Leah dream," she wrote, knowing that in this scenario I'd have gone straight for the red-stickered center cuts - fudgy, dense and devoid of crust.

Middle brownies bring me pleasure in the way that an edge-adjacent one can't. It's an exponentially higher sense of satisfaction I also derive from the folded specimens unearthed from a bag of potato chips, with their extra salt and grease and crunch; a bulging double-peanut M&M; and the twisted knot of a soft pretzel.

"Tell me what you eat," 18th-century gastro-philosopher Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, "and I will tell you what you are." An aphorism coined after the French Revolution is relevant to the ways we fetishize our favorite parts of a foodstuff today. We're a society of snack taxonomists, our idiosyncratic systems of classification used as a mechanism for bonding with others (I'm an edge person and she's a middle person!) or fostering debate (really? The wheat Chex?).

This tendency plays out in pop culture, from Elaine Benes's iconic popularization of muffin tops ("It's crunchy, it's explosive, it's where the muffin breaks free of the pan and sort of does its own thing!") on "Seinfeld" to Abbi Abrams of "Broad City" picking out all the rye chips from a tub of Chex Mix, pummeling them into dust and snorting them from her coffee table with a straw. Chrissy Teigen's rise in relatability can be owed, in part, to tweets like, "I figured out what I want for my birthday. Someone to pick out all the brown toast things from Gardetto's [snack mix] for me to eat." In January, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told a reporter he earned brownie points with President Donald Trump by giving him just the pink and red Starbursts.

There may be biological reasoning behind these connections. Research published last summer in the journal Psychological Inquiry examined the intersection of identity-forming and the calculation of subjective value, both of which are linked to activity in the same part of the brain.

The research indicates that saying "I'm a salad person," for example, will make you more likely to choose that salad over a cheeseburger than saying "I should eat that salad because it's healthier than the cheeseburger."

"In some ways, you very, very literally define yourself based on your preferences," says Elliot Berkman, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's department of psychology and the paper's lead author.

We also want to share them: In additional research cited in the paper, individuals showed increased activity in the same brain region as above when disclosing information about themselves to others.

Online, this plays out via BuzzFeed quizzes, which tell us what it means to prefer the wiggly breadstick in Chex Mix ("you're always wearing your best clothes, even if you're home alone") to Twitter threads proselytizing the superiority of folded potato chips (known, in Canada, as "wish chips"). Combine this with brands increasingly eager to stand out both online and on store shelves, and it might explain why our eating particularities are being increasingly packaged up and sold right back to us.

Today, fans of sticky-bun middles can head to their local mall for a "center of the roll" from Cinnabon. Edge-fetishists can bake crisp-cornered brownies in zigzagged pans from Baker's Edge and snack on Sheila G's Brownie Brittle, from a Florida-based baker who parlayed a predilection into a multimillion-dollar business. Those who rummage around for the popcorn kernels that don't quite fully explode can now add dill pickle-flavored "partially popped popcorn" to their cart on web retailer Brandless.

It's happening in restaurants, too: At Osteria Francescana, the Michelin-starred Modenese restaurant made famous on "Chef's Table," chef Massimo Bottura designed a dish called "The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne," boiled and baked pasta triangles layered with ragu and bechamel - "an entire dish made from the best part of the lasagne," he writes in his book "Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef." This February, on the other side of the dining spectrum, Olive Garden debuted a dish of fried pasta "chips" doused with meat sauce and an Alfredo "drizzle."

But the most prominent manifestation of the trend is the pink Starburst. Last spring, the company's limited-edition packs of "All Pink" Starbursts were so successful that in April, the brand coupled a relaunch with a full line of merchandise, including pink jackets, sweatshirts and patterned scarves. Designed by "Project Runway" winner Erin Robertson, the Pepto-hued garb is branded with the slogan "You Are a Pink Starburst."

Who is a pink Starburst, exactly? "It comes down to specialness," says Audrey Arbeeny, the company's senior associate brand manager. "It really started from that feeling you got when you got two pinks in a pack. . . . That evolved into this statement and declaration of individual empowerment and self-esteem."

The rise of the pink Starburst can be credited to a meme circulating as early as 2015, declaring: "Never let anyone treat you like a yellow Starburst. You are a pink Starburst." Shared by the likes of Paris Hilton, it got so popular - with more than half of all Starburst-related online chatter devoted to the pink-hued candies - that officials at Wrigley (Starburst's parent company) decided to take action.

Previous iterations of such products - like Starburst's Favereds, Gardetto's Special Request Rye Chips and Cap'n Crunch's Oops! All Berries - typically originated out of more traditional pathways like direct customer requests and focus groups. The pink Starburst push is different, a direct result of a newer marketing research tactic called "social listening," aimed at observing the conversations already happening online. Those Twitter threads and Reddit forums and BuzzFeed quizzes? Brands are reading every single word.

If a researcher "asked me what my favorite beer is, I would come up with an answer," says Mike Zhadkevich, a brand strategist with close to a decade of experience in the social-listening field at prominent firms such as LRWMotiveQuest and W2O. "But I don't care about beer and I don't drink beer. I would try to come up with something clever. However, "with social listening, you get to go and see who I am online, what my digital profile is like, what tribe I belong to. That can be really powerful."

Comment threads themselves can also be good for business. Just ask Matthew Griffin, founder of the Baker's Edge pan, chosen as one of Oprah's Favorite Things and featured on "Shark Tank." Griffin originally had marketed it as a tool for evenly cooked baked goods. "I couldn't give it away. People said it was dumb," he says. "Then, we noticed at the trade shows that the folks that got into it would say, 'This is a pan for people that love brownies - it's a brownie-edge pan.' So I changed all of the marketing stuff, and it blew up." Today, he sees Amazon sale linkbacks come directly from Reddit threads arguing about edges vs. middles. Other manufacturers have followed suit, with edge-focused brownie pans sold in stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Sur la Table.

In social psychology, the theory of optimal distinctiveness identifies an inherent push-pull between a sense of self and the desire to be part of a group. "We want to use products that allow us to be unique, but there is social utility to use products other people do as well," says Americus Reed, a professor in the marketing department of University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School whose work focuses on the intersection between social identity and buying decisions. Being a pink Starburst person theoretically nails that sweet spot between finding your people and feeling unique. But what happens when you realize your "uniqueness" is joined by enough people to make you an ideal consumer for a whole new product line?

During our conversation, Zhadkevich recalled a middle-school girlfriend who knew he loved the pink Starbursts best, so she collected them from multiple packs and created a special package just for him - the mix-tape analogue to All Pink's Spotify Radio. It's hard to imagine that handing someone a bag of All Pinks would have the same emotional resonance, but brands are hoping it will. "The question of the brand is now of customizing an experience to create the highest optimized level of delight," Reed says. "The delight becomes part of the brand concept."

The article my sister shared called those pre-marked brownies a "genius" idea because the curation had been done for the customer. But "if you don't have to scavenge for them," I had texted my sister back, "are they as delicious?" She responded, "It's basically the same fundamental philosophical question of, 'Can you have happiness without sadness?' "

When you optimize a moment of delight, there's a risk of eroding part of what made it pleasurable in the first place. Put another way, from a Reddit user in a thread discussing the merits of Gardetto's Special Request Garlic Rye Chips, "It seems like cheating. There's no thrill of the hunt."

I asked Griffin whether the corners of the brownie could be seen as more satisfying when there are only four available in the pan, that the rarity and the contrast could be seen as part of the appeal. "What you are saying is really wrong," he replied. "Too much of a good thing is not too much of a good thing."

I have to disagree. But that could just be because I'm a middle person.

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Mennies is a food writer based in Boston.

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