Here's a deep one for you. How do they get the Ms on M&Ms? My wife says they have a machine that stamps them one at a time, but I say that's too time-consuming. Can you give us the straight dope?
— G. Glenn Mahoney, Atlanta
I'm troubled by the expiration date on the enclosed M&M wrapper. As you can see, it says: 19 DEC 88 805 AMMy question is, what happens at 8:06?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
You’re on to something here, boys, although with luck and a little baking soda maybe you’ll still pass the urine test. M&Ms are definitely mysterious. I first tried to find out how they get the Ms on M&Ms years ago, but was stymied by the company’s total refusal to cooperate.
The culprit was M&M/Mars’s parent company, Mars, Inc., whose paranoia is the stuff of legend. Mars’s response to the most innocuous inquiry, even from schoolchildren, is that the information is “confidential.” The $6 billion firm is privately held, publishes no annual report, and refuses all interview requests from the press. Interestingly, the main office is located in McLean, Virginia, a short distance from the headquarters of the CIA. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but you have to wonder.
Now you might interject at this point, hey, why does Cecil have to ask? Cecil just knows. Well, sure. But it’s only polite to check. I bided my time. Eventually the spirit of glasnost reached Mars in the person of a guy named Hans, who took over the M&M PR department. A charming fellow with a German accent, Hans saw no reason to hide M&M’s achievements under a bushel basket. He cheerfully revealed the following facts:
(1) Ms are applied to M&Ms en masse using a process “akin to offset printing.” (Actually, I would have guessed it was more like flexography, which involves a flexible printing plate, but Hans says no.) The “ink” is a simple vegetable dye. Blank M&Ms are run through the printing press on a special conveyor belt with rows of dimples on it — indentations, actually — to hold the little guys in place. The real trick, Hans says, is calibrating the press so it won’t smash the peanuts. (Peanuts, being a natural product, are given to some variation of dimension.) As is my habit in these matters, I promised I wouldn’t reveal the secret to the world, but believe me, you’d be amazed.
(2) “805 AM” doesn’t mean what you think, sorry to say. Imagine an M&M route man making a mad lunge at 8:04 — give me that bag, you fool! — lest a package of (shudder) expired M&Ms remain on the shelf. Alas, Hans says, that’s not the way it works. “805 AM” is a production code telling which factory, work shift, and wrapping machine filled the bag. The code might as easily have been “731 CP”; it’s coincidence that it looks like the time of day. M&M/Mars, by the way, was a pioneer in putting freshness dates on its candy. They may be a little goofy about secrecy, but in their own odd way they’re not such bad guys.
One more thing. While addressing a Mensa convention the other day (really), Cecil told the story of the letter about the M&M expiration date, concluding with the plaintive question, “what happens at 8:06?” From the back of the room someone promptly shot back the obvious answer: “They melt in your hand.”
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.