Fans say it’s that lovely hit of raspberry that gets you first. Then, when you sink your teeth into them, there’s a sublime soft chewiness, just a little harder than a marshmallow.
A few moments of mouthwatering deliciousness later, they are ready to be swallowed and, at that point, say their fanatical devotees, there’s no option but to have another one because they are as addictive as crack cocaine.
And there’s no reason to feel bad because they are, after all, made with natural fruit juice — with no artificial colourings or flavourings. I’m talking, of course, about the confectionary phenomenon that is the Percy Pig, a sweet that has been an integral part of M&S’s offering for more than 25 years, adored by adults and children alike.
But Henry Dimbleby, boss of the ethical restaurant group Leon and author of a new National Food Strategy commissioned by the Government, turned on the porcine legend.
The Percy Pig is a sweet that has been an integral part of M&S’s offering for more than 25 years, adored by adults and children alike, writes ROSE PRINCE
Like a parent telling a five-year-old that Father Christmas does not exist, he announced that far from being a harmless treat, Percy Pig is, in fact, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
He condemned the wording on the packs as wilfully misleading, taking issue with the boast of ‘no artificial colours or artificial flavourings’ and lines such as ‘soft gums made with fruit juice’.
‘How many parents take the time to check the ingredients list?’ he asked. ‘If they did, they might be agog to find that the three largest ingredients by weight are glucose syrup, sugar and glucose-fructose-syrup.’
While Dimbleby also criticised two other brands, Innocent and Juicy Water, for containing hidden sugars, his attack on a treat which has become a national institution inevitably stirred up a tempest.
But was it fair to target M&S, a firm known for its integrity when it comes to food? Dimbleby argues that he had no choice. ‘I single out Marks & Spencer here, not because it is the biggest sinner, but because it is such a well-trusted company,’ he said. ‘If M&S — which is a great deal more scrupulous than many food companies — is guilty of such trickery, you can be sure the practice is ubiquitous.’
He is right, of course, to highlight that a number of the ingredients on the packs’ contents list are nutritional no-no’s. Alongside sugar there is glucose syrup, invert sugar syrup, maltodextrin, glucose-fructose syrup — all sugar derivatives that nutritional health campaigners would like banned.
They turn up singly or combined in countless sweet snacks. Glucose syrup can increase the risk of obesity, high blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and heart disease.
The original recipe was made (fittingly) with pork gelatine, but the newly veggie Percy (pictured) was manufactured with pectin, a gelling agent derived from apples
Meanwhile, high fructose corn syrup has been linked to cancer, and invert sugar syrup, an incredibly sweet liquid, can be a factor in the onset of diabetes.
It is true, I believe, that the wording on the packaging should be clearer, but Henry, with all due respect, these are treats.
Nice, but how naughty are his rivals?
Haribo’s Tangfastics 340 cals/100g, non-vegetarian, 50 per cent sugar
These contain sugar, glucose syrup and caramelised sugar syrup. The flavourings are natural, from fruits and plants. Naughty factor: 3/5
Rowntree’s Jelly Tots 351 cals/100g, suitable for vegans and vegetarians, 57.8 per cent sugar
loved by children, Jelly Tots contain a small 1% natural concentrated fruit juices and aside from sugar are sweetened with glucose syrup. 4.5/5
Maynards Bassetts Wine Gums Red n’Black 330 cals/100g, non-vegetarian, 57 per cent sugar
Contains no artificial colours but does have artificial flavourings, glucose syrup and also a proportion of non-eco-friendly palm oil. 5/5
M&S Veggie Colin the Caterpillar Fruit Sours 313 cals/100g, suitable for vegetarians, 56.4 per cent sugar
Percy Pig’s stable mate at M&S contains many of the same sugar derivatives but is sold on its vegetarian credentials using no pork gelatine. 3/5
Sainsbury’s strawberry laces 362 cals/100g, suitable for vegetarians, 48 per cent sugar
Natural flavourings plus fruit concentrates make these gummy strings sound healthy but sadly they, again, contain glucose-fructose syrup. 3/5
Most people know sweets contain sugar and other nasty things and — if they eat too many of them or stuff them down their kids — it can be argued that it is they who should be targeted for negligence, not the manufacturers.
The Percy phenomenon is a marvel. His life — it’s difficult not to anthropomorphise — since his creation 28 years ago has been well documented.
Invented in 1992 by M&S buyer Bill Davies, Percy’s original incarnation was as a black and white liquorice panda. It took a year for him to evolve into the pink, floppy-eared, smiling porker’s head, flavoured with grape and raspberry, that we know today.
Before you could oink, sales began to soar. By 2007, a billion Percys had been sold. He made it into Vogue’s ‘What’s Hot’ list the very next year. Sir Andy Murray, Alexa Chung and Lewis Hamilton are all self-confessed fans.
Today, more than 300 million packs of the Percy Pig range are sold each year in 100 countries, That’s ten sweets a second, a food business success story that contributes around £20 million to M&S’s coffers every year.
The Percy Pig phenomenon is not confined to the sweets themselves. Associated merchandise includes cufflinks, pyjamas, wedding cakes and ice cream. And his Instagram account is extraordinary, featuring myriad ways to use Percy products.
You can skewer them onto sticks with marshmallows and serve with chocolate bunnies for Easter, or buy a Percy Pig flavoured dessert sauce to serve with pancakes. There was controversy across much of the fanbase in May 2019 when Percy went vegetarian. The original recipe was made (fittingly) with pork gelatine, but the newly veggie Percy was manufactured with pectin, a gelling agent derived from apples. Percy aficionados were furious, claiming the new ingredient made the gums taste of washing up liquid.
But Percy himself hit back. Asked at the time why he’d decided to go veggie, the normally modest pig explained that he wanted to be eaten by more people. ‘I’m a popular pig already but we wanted even more people to be able to have their fill of Percy,’ he said.
Percy himself is yet to respond to criticism, but M&S have commented: ‘All our products have clear labelling so that customers can make informed choices about what they buy’ (file image)
Later that month, a poll of Percy-loving M&S shoppers voted for their favourite sweet to stay vegetarian ‘for ever’. Such was the perceived desolation of the old guard that a pack of pre-veggie Percy chews even went on sale on eBay priced at £1,000.
Meanwhile, an ever-expanding family of treats is being dreamed up by M&S’s boffins. In 2013, Percy married Penny, who is flavoured with lemon and vanilla and the couple have had endless piglets, who have their own packs.
Percy himself is yet to respond to criticism from the much-respected Mr Dimbleby, but M&S have commented: ‘All our products have clear labelling so that customers can make informed choices about what they buy.’
They point out that there is even a low-calorie Percy, with one-third less sugar — not as attractive as it sounds, given that it contains the sugar-substitute sorbitol, a laxative ingredient that causes wind.
But, unfortunately for Dimbleby, Percy Pig has been benefiting from a following wind for years — and looks likely to continue to do so for many more to come.