GWEN THOMPKINS, host:
It wouldn't be Valentine's Day without Sweethearts, those little heart-shaped candies with sugary phrases like puppy love and sweet pea. For the first time in 145 years, the company that makes Sweethearts, Necco, has revamped the original recipe. The new candies have brighter colors, bolder flavors and more current expressions. Patty White reports.
PATTY WIGHT: Sweethearts are about as American as apple pie - at least in terms of tradition - but when it comes to flavor, the comparison ends for some.
Mr. KEITH LUKE: I would describe the taste to be like a delicious chalk.
Ms. JAIME BUCHAY: It's kind of a classic taste. They're subtle and a little bitter.
Mr. JONAH SPIEGEL: They're okay. They're kind of weird tasting, but...
Ms. SARAH SPIEGEL: Kind of like medicine. Like Pepto-Bismol a little bit.
WIGHT: That was Keith Luke, Jaime Buchay and Jonah and Sarah Spiegel at the Old Port Candy Company in Portland, Maine.
Despite mixed opinions on flavor, Sweethearts are the number one selling non-chocolate Valentine's Day candy. At Necco's factory in Revere, Massachusetts, workers stamp and print about six billion Sweethearts a year. But the company's vice president of operations, Dave Smith, says they still saw room for improvement.
(Soundbite of crunching)
WIGHT: Definitely tastes kind of bland.
Mr. DAVE SMITH (Vice President of Operations, Necco): Yeah.
WIGHT: I mean, I hate to say it: There's a little something chalky about it.
Mr. SMITH: Yes, and I think everybody would say the same thing: The original Sweethearts were a bit chalky. Some people really like eating chalky, but the idea is that the new flavors and textures are much more candy-like, and you can enjoy them more because they taste a little better.
WIGHT: For Necco, better is bolder. Out are banana and wintergreen; in are green apple and blue raspberry. Along with the new flavors, Necco is printing updated sayings on Sweethearts, all chosen from a consumer contest. The top picks? Tweet Me and Text Me. Those choices aren't too surprising, says Necco brand manager Aimee Scott.
Ms. AIMEE SCOTT (Brand Manager, Necco): Now, with social media and with Twitter and with Facebook and all these other really powerful social media engines and blogs, we've really been able to change the relationship that companies have with their customers. So, it's much more of a two-way dialogue, and that really enables consumers to say, hey, here's what I want, and for companies to be really responsive in meeting those consumer needs.
WIGHT: Of course, the real test is whether the new flavors hold up to today's discerning palates. Fourteen-year-old Anthony Lewis was disappointed when he heard Sweethearts changed their recipe, but then he tried a new one.
Mr. ANTHONY LEWIS: These taste more flavorful than the other ones. They, like, have a distinct orange taste, 'cause this one is orange.
WIGHT: You think it's a good idea?
Mr. LEWIS: I think it is. I think it tastes delicious.
WIGHT: If you don't like the new Sweethearts, there are other options. Brach's makes their own version of Conversation Hearts, which are unchanged this year. Or if sugar isn't your thing, you can now send virtual Sweethearts through Twitter.
For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight.