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 AM

My question is, what happens at 8:06? –Barry M., Chicago

You’re onto something here, boys, although with luck and a little baking soda maybe you’ll still pass the urine test. M&Ms are definitely mysterious. (My personal question: do they have M&M proofreaders?) I first tried to find out how they get the Ms on M&Ms years ago, but my fact-finding mission 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, I’m 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.


I’d like to congratulate you on having achieved post-pubescence, due perhaps to the existence of Mrs. Adams, not mentioned in The Straight Dope [book, volume one]. The lack of lewd and suggestive comments to your female correspondents in More of the Straight Dope [recently published] suggests growth and consciousness-raising. As a home-schooling mother of two and a rabid feminist, I can officially sanction More Straight Dope as a genuine resource tool, something I couldn’t in good conscience do with Straight Dope. Keep up the good work! –Valerie Casses, Windber, Pennsylvania

Thanks, Val. You’re a doll.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.