How mystery flavors confuse our taste buds

People have tried to guess what’s behind the White Mystery Airhead for ages, but no one’s gotten it right so far.

Mystery flavors have multiplied on store shelves of late. Companies tempt consumers into guessing obscure tastes in special editions of everything from chips to cookies. But at least one cryptic bite’s profile remains under wraps: Laffy Taffy debuted its White Mystery Airhead in 1993, and the monochrome concoction continues to baffle.

The candymaker receives heaps of fan theories every day—from tart lemon to smooth vanilla—but no one has gotten it right. Today, only a few dozen people know the secret identity; the rest of us have to settle for simpler certitudes. The tang of citric acid makes White Mystery undeniably fruity, and a mixture of sugar and corn syrup adds ample sweetness. The absence of color, however, is the curveball: It deprives the brain of the visual cues that can help taste buds determine the source and the intensity of a given zing.

This story appears in the Fall 2020, Mysteries issue of Popular Science.

Stan Horaczek
Stan Horaczek

is the senior gear editor at Popular Science and Popular Photography. His past bylines include Rolling Stone, Engadget, Men's Journal, GQ, and just about any other publication that has ever written about gadgets. For a short time, he even wrote the gadget page for Every Day With Rachel Ray magazine. He collects vintage cameras, eats pizza, and hopes you won't go looking at his Tweets even though the link is down there.