I confess to Kate Keelan, the co-owner and founder of Spunlight, a Tucson-based organic cotton candy company, that I have unpleasant cotton candy memories. I balked at the sticky, gritty texture and how tooth-achingly sweet it is.
“People tell me that a lot,” she says with a laugh. Keelan cofounded Spunlight with her husband, Nick Breckenfeld. “When we do events, parents will bring their kids up for a free sample. But the adults often say, ‘I don’t like it. No thank you.’”
So what’s in conventional cotton candy, anyway? “It can be made with any kind of sugar or even corn syrup,” Keelan explains. “It’s loaded with artificial flavors and colors.”
Spunlight is made with organic cane sugar and without artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. It’s also vegan and gluten-free. Keelan says Spunlight is fluffier (the company was called Fluff It Up until they lost a trademark kerfuffle) than the stuff of childhood.
The category is growing; Keelan says that when they launched in 2012, they were the only organic cotton candy manufacturer in the United States. Competition has since popped up in Austin, Los Angeles, and Seattle. They are completing the arduous application process to become a certified organic company in hopes of expansion to places like Whole Foods.
You can buy Spunlight at Food Conspiracy Co-op, 5 Points Market, Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market, Maynards Market, and Time Market. You’ll also find Spunlight at the Tucson Festival of Books, the Fourth Avenue Street Fairs, and 2nd Saturdays Downtown Tucson.
Cotton candy has a long shelf life. “Our bagged candy has a two-week shelf life; if it’s in a tub, two months,” she says.
I sample a few flavors. The coffee is warm and roasty on the tongue. The lavender is not cloying, more herbaceous than floral. The savory new sesame silk smells like a well-seasoned wok and tastes like tahini.
Spunlight is made to order, so it’s always fresh. Spunlight flavors have a subtle pastel tint unlike the lurid colors of conventional cotton candy. The texture is gossamer-like, not dense and sticky. The flavors are nuanced, layered, and warm.
Manufacturing happens in their modest Tucson home; they currently offer 54 flavors. Top sellers include strawberry, blueberry, peach, salted caramel, and lavender. In addition to single note flavors, Spunlight offers blends. I’m especially interested in those that reflect a Sonoran sense of place.
“One of my favorites is the chile mango,” Keelan says. “It has mango base notes and haberno for heat. It’s a little sweet and a little salty.” The Aztec chocolate is another Spunlight triumph. “The first time I had a spicy chocolate brownie it blew me away,” Keelan says. “It’s a blend of chocolate, cinnamon and habanero. It’s a favorite.”
They’ve had some oddball requests, like dill pickle and tamarind; bubblegum and prickly pear are in the works. Keelan hopes to create grapefruit and sage. “Nick is a high school chemistry teacher,” Keelan says. “We are both very scientific people. You have to keep really good records, but it ultimately it comes down to taste.”
Considering her Willy Wonka-like life, is she sick of cotton candy? “No, but I don’t eat it for fun, I eat it for quality control,” says Keelan. “But some flavors, like cinnamon roll and saffron, are deadly good.” ✜
Tucson-based Suzanne Wright cannot hike enough to work off the calories consumed in Baja Arizona.