It’s a question that’s beset many of us since we were kids: how many licks does it take to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop? Along with “Everything I Think I See” and “My Bologna Has a First Name,” it’s an artifact of some incredibly effective advertising campaigns when media was more concentrated and the entire nation of children could be reached over the airwaves on Saturday morning.
But it’s more than just idle curiosity. For some, it’s serious science, and for all of us, it’s a serious risk of cavities needing fillings.
Fluid Dynamics Models the Problem
The most recent answer to this question (yes, there have been several–more on others later) has been supplied by researchers at New York University, who were actually interested in how fluids dissolve solids under constant exposure. They used candies as their models because they knew that sugar is readily soluble in water.
However, they didn’t use commercial candies, which, they say, are too irregular with numerous encased air pockets. They had to make their own, which were more perfect, for the study. (Apparently, scientists are better at everything. An alternate version of Breaking Bad could have had Walter White as a candypreneur, facing off with Jolly Rancher’s thugs.)
They then exposed the synthetic candies to steady fluid flow and analyzed the rate at which they dissolved. They estimated that a Tootsie Pop would reveal its center after 1000 licks.
Earlier Studies Are More Direct
The problem with this result is that it doesn’t match well with previous results. At least three scientific studies have been carried out before on this question, all of which have revealed significantly lower numbers than the current study.
Two studies conducted at rival schools Purdue and University of Michigan using licking machines yielded similar results. Purdue came up with a figure of 364 licks, while U of M came up with 411. The question, of course, remains unsettled until Ohio State performs its own definitive experiment.
The licking machine experiments also differ from studies performed with actual tongues. One study working with junior high school kids found it only took about 144 licks to reach the center. There’re good reasons why kids would get there faster. Kids could suck on the pops as well as lick them, allowing them to get to the center without licking the pops as much. And kids know that Tootsie Pops aren’t perfectly symmetrical. If you start on one side, you can lick to the center faster than if you start at another side.
In addition, one man performed his own experiment of licking not just to the filling, but to the actual stick, and he recorded it took 850 licks.
The Longer You Lick, the Worse for Your Teeth
Whether it’s 375 licks, 1000 licks, or even just 150, it’s important to remember that hard candies are among the worst for your teeth. That’s because they keep supplying oral bacteria with sugar to fuel their metabolism, and as long as the bacteria continue to consume sugar, they continue producing more bacteria and more acid to attack your dental enamel. And when you add chewing the Tootsie Roll center–a sticky candy that can cling to your teeth for even longer–Tootsie Pops become one of the worst treats for your teeth. They should definitely be consumed less often than other types of candy.
Is This Really the Worst Halloween Candy?
A recent, highly publicized study, said that candy corn is actually the least popular Halloween candy. But also on that list is Tootsie Roll, coming in at #6. Even though Tootsie Roll Pop doesn’t make the list, there are good reasons not to stock this candy for giving it to kids in the neighborhood. While the hard candy coating might make the lollipop more popular, it makes it worse for your teeth. When you combine the two factors: the hard candy shell and the chewy candy center, Tootsie Roll Pops take up two spots on the American Dental Association’s list of worst candies for your teeth. And that’s a good reason to avoid giving them out (unless you really hate kids).