What exactly is candy corn, and more importantly, how did corn-shaped pieces of mellowcreme become such an iconic American candy?

By Claire Ballor
October 08, 2020
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Credit: Juanmonino/Getty Images

Candy corn is undeniably a harbinger of fall. Bags of the tri-colored candy stacked on drugstore shelves are as much of an indicator of the season's change as turning leaves or pumpkin spice lattes.

But few candies are as nostalgic — or as divisive — as this vegetable-shaped treat. For part of the population, the chewy mellowcremes are a hit of sweet nostalgia, but for others they make better decor than delectable.

What exactly is candy corn, and more importantly, how did it become such a mainstay in American confections? Read on to find out.

How Candy Corn Was Invented

Part of candy corn's appeal comes from the fact that it's been around for more than a century. The kernels were invented in the 1880s by George Renninger, an employee of the Wunderlee Candy Company in Pennsylvania, according to the National Confectioners Association.

The candy is said to have been inspired by chicken feed, and was even called that for a time. The Goelitz Company, now Jelly Belly Candy Company, started producing the candy several years later after its inception, and still does to this day.

"When it was created over 100 years ago, we were a very agrarian-focused country," said Lauren O'Toole, a spokesperson for the National Confectioners Association. "That's really where it pulls from originally. It first appeared with the tri-colored design and was really considered to be quite revolutionary at the time."

Farming was a dominant industry when Renninger is said to have invented the candy, and agricultural-themed treats like candy corn were common year round. Decades later when trick-or-treating became a popular Halloween tradition, the candy became closely tied to the holiday.

Candy corn is still largely associated with Halloween, but it can be found in candy aisles all year long in a variety of flavors.

"About 35 million pounds of candy corn are sold every year," said O'Toole. "Many of the candy makers have been making candy corn themes for Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter. You can really find it any time of year, but it really does pop up during these candy moments. It's really transferable between seasons."

How Candy Corn Is Made

Candy corn is made from a mixture of corn syrup, sugar, and gelatin that is dyed and poured into corn starch molds in layers to achieve the multi-colored look. Once the kernels are dried and hardened over 24 hours, they are polished and coated with edible wax to give them their signature shine.

The original marshmallowy flavor is still the most popular, but caramel, pumpkin spice, birthday cake and turkey dinner – yes, turkey dinner – are some of the flavors made today.

Although the three layers of the original candy corn are all the same flavor, there are opinions regarding the order in which they should be consumed. According to a recent study from the National Confectioners Association, 29 percent of respondents eat the narrow white end first, and about 6 percent start on the other end with the yellow layer. As for the other 65 percent, they eat the whole piece (and maybe more than one piece) at once.

America's Least Loved Candy

O'Toole said the reason candy corn holds icon status in the candy world has little to do with its chalky yet chewy texture or its nutty, vanilla-like flavor. It all comes down to memory.

"I think so much of it revolves around your memory of trying it for the first time," she said. "For me, when I think of seeing candy corn for the first time and tasting it for the first time, I think back and I think of my mom. She would always have it out when we decorated for Halloween."

Because the candy has been produced for decades, it's shared among generations and tied into family traditions.

"As many people as there are who love candy corn, there are certainly the haters out there," O'Toole said. In fact, a recent survey found that candy corn is the "worst" Halloween candy. "But I think it's this really interesting cultural piece of candy that whether people love it or they hate it, they have such a strong memory attached to it," she added.

And for that reason alone, love it or loathe it, candy corn is forever stitched into the fabric of American culture.