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Candy corn: Halloween’s most contentious sweet, explained

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Ah, Halloween, the glorious holiday devoted to underdressing in the cold while overindulging in sugar. Of all the types of candy that are consumed during its observance, perhaps none is as controversial as the humble, cloying little triangles known as candy corn.

What makes this waxy, tricolored sweet so essential to All Hallow's Eve — and so hotly debated? Read on for more facts about candy corn than you probably ever wanted to know.

Candy corn (surprise!) is mainly pure sugar

In its traditional form, candy corn is a small, triangular candy consisting of three colored sections (white, orange, and yellow); it’s mainly sold around Halloween. The ingredients in candy corn from Brach's, the largest manufacturer of the stuff, are sugar, corn syrup, confectioner’s glaze, salt, dextrose, gelatin, sesame oil, artificial flavor, honey, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, and Red 3. A serving size is 19 pieces and contains 140 calories, 0 grams of fat, 28 grams of sugar, and 70 milligrams of sodium. The main flavor is basically sugar and honey, which as candy goes is pretty logical.

As for why they call it candy corn? Well...

Candy corn was invented in the 1880s

The accepted narrative of how candy corn came to be is that a Philadelphia candymaker named George Renninger invented it in the 1880s. The recipe for the confection was then bought by the Goelitz Confectionary Company (today the Jelly Belly Candy Company), which has been churning it out since 1898.

Per the National Confectioners Association, this is how candy corn used to be produced:

In 1900, it was the job of many men to produce candy corn several months of the year.

Sugar, corn syrup and other ingredients were cooked into a slurry in large kettles. Fondant and marshmallow were added to give a smooth texture and bite. The 45 pounds of warm candy was poured into buckets called runners. Men dubbed stringers walked backwards pouring the candy into cornstarch trays imprinted with the kernel shape. It took three passes to make the white, yellow and orange colors. Originally, it was delivered by wagon in wooden boxes, tubs and cartons.

The process is largely the same today, though now it involves more machine labor and an appetizing-sounding technique called the "corn starch molding process."

If you're curious, Food Network's Unwrapped has an interesting behind-the-scenes look at how candy corn gets made.

A sickly sweet harbinger of fall

According to Susan Whiteside of the National Confectioners Association, about 35 million pounds of candy corn (around 9 billion pieces) are produced each year, with the "vast majority" of it being sold during the Halloween season. In a poll to determine people’s favorite Halloween candy, the NCA found that candy corn ranks second on the list — but at just 13 percent popularity, it’s far below chocolate, which dominates with 70 percent. Chewy and gummy candy rank third and fourth, with 6 and 5 percent, respectively. (It’s worth noting, of course, that most of those categories encompass many types of candies, while candy corn is generally pretty homogeneous.)

According to CandyStore.com’s map of top Halloween candies, residents of seven states — Alabama, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Rhode Island — named candy corn as their favorite Halloween candy, based on sales data from 2007 to 2017. It was also the No. 6 seller nationwide, behind Skittles, M&Ms, Snickers, Reese’s Cups, and Starburst.

Source: CandyStore.com.

Whiteside theorizes the enduring popularity of the stuff is due to the fact that, like the McRib sandwich or Shamrock Shake at McDonald's, it’s only prevalent at a certain time of year. Though you can now get candy corn in various flavors and themed around Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, and other holidays, the classic version generally only comes out in the fall.

"It’s not easy to find candy corn in July, so every year when it comes on the shelves, people get excited," Whiteside says. "It was the pumpkin spice latte of the fall before there were pumpkin spice lattes." (Here is where I note, without comment, that pumpkin spice candy corn now also exists.)

Is it good or terrible? The debate rages on.

Whether candy corn is a sugary delight or “Satan’s earwax” certainly seems to be a major point of contention. (A 2013 CNN Facebook poll on the topic garnered more than 1,000 comments.) People who like it generally agree that it is very, very sweet; people who dislike it seem to want to consign it to a lower circle of hell.

The debate has raged with such intensity that last year, it even garnered its own Twitter Moment.

Firmly in the anti-corn camp is Lewis Black, who has a whole (not very factually accurate) bit about the stuff:

Phil Lempert, a.k.a. the Supermarket Guru, theorized to Adweek that the divide is a generational one:

"There's no question that candy corn is iconic for the baby boomer who grew up looking forward to the once-a-year Halloween treat," he said. "The question is whether it is still as relevant today for millennials and Gen Z."

In other words, if you grew up during candy corn's heyday in the 1950s and '60s, you're probably more inclined to like it than today's kids, raised on a Halloween diet heavy on Skittles and Starburst.

For some, no doubt, the waxy glaze behind what Better Homes and Gardens dubbed candy corn's "irresistible, hand-grabbable shine" is the cause of their dislike.

Even among those who enjoy it, the debates continue. Do you eat the individual pieces all at once, or a section at a time? If you're a by-the-section person, do you start with the wide yellow end or the narrow white one? Here’s what most people do, according to an NCA survey:

National Confectioners Association

Of course, how you eat it really doesn't matter. Though some have conducted taste tests that claim otherwise, candy corn is made of the same ingredients all the way through, so the three sections taste identical.

Candy corn won't (necessarily) give you cavities

Candy corn is largely made of sugar, but does that aching feeling in your teeth actually translate to dental damage? Not necessarily, according to Dr. Matthew Messina, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association. "Candy corn is not gonna turn out to be as bad as some things," he says. "The key is to minimize the amount of time sugar is on the teeth — something really sticky that’s hard to get off the teeth, like caramel, gives sugar more time. Candy corn or chocolate’s actually really good; we can brush it off very easily."

He says in general things like sour candies and carbonated beverages, which are more acidic, actually do more harm to teeth, but points out that moderate amounts of any kind of food or beverage, combined with a regular regimen of brushing and flossing, are okay for oral health.

The real dental hazard around Halloween, he says, isn’t cavities but rather "adults who were snitching candy from their kids and break a tooth or pull out an old filling because they eat something sticky."

It lasts a long time, though not forever

According to the National Confectioners Association’s Whiteside, an opened package of candy corn will officially last between three and six months. A fresh, unopened package will last about nine months. (Unofficially, you can probably eat it long past that, but it might taste stale.)

For comparison's sake, a supposedly everlasting Twinkie will last about 45 days unopened, according to this great NPR article on the topic. Pure chocolate can last around two years, per Slate, "but it’s likely to change in texture and become less appetizing after about 12 months." Chocolate with nuts likely won’t last as long, as the oils in the nuts can go rancid after about a year.

Not just candy anymore

Debate aside, these days candy corn infuses myriad snack foods, products, and home cooking experiments. You can find candy corn M&Ms, Starburst candy corn, and, once upon a time, limited-edition candy corn Oreos. This year, thanks to one Wisconsin brewery, there is also candy corn cream ale, which has the ideal beer elements of a “light orange hue and a strong candy corn scent.”

A quick Google search also turns up an inexhaustible supply of candy-corn-related and/or -flavored recipes, like this recipe for “candy corn on the cob” (which — spoiler — is literally just candy corn stuck into a log of raw sugar cookie dough), as well as candy corn costumes, candles, and lip balm. And last year, an enterprising home chef with the Twitter handle @TheRealAsswolf tried a candy corn culinary experiment that went viral.

No matter what form or flavor you prefer your candy corn to take (or whether you'd prefer it didn't exist at all), just remember: Anyone who tries to convince you chocolate is healthier is sorely mistaken.


Watch: How bad bread started the Salem witch trials