In 2020, Candystore.com surveyed 20,000 customers and determined that candy corn was America’s least favorite candy. Case closed? Not so fast: A separate report from the same site back in 2017 found that it’s the top Halloween candy in six states, according to sales data. How much of the candy corn that’s sold each year actually gets eaten remains unknown.

Whether you view a piece of candy corn as a nostalgic treat or a cloying nugget of disappointment, you can’t deny its place in the United States’ Halloween season. The pattern of white, orange, and yellow has practically become synonymous with the holiday. But how did that happen? What is it actually made of?

Putting the Corn in Candy Corn

Most accounts of candy corn’s history pin its invention to the 1880s. During that decade, George Renninger, an employee of the Wunderle Candy Company in Philadelphia, had the idea to mold so-called butter cream into the shape of a corn kernel. Though the exact recipe is unknown, the main ingredients in his butter cream were probably sugar and corn syrup. 

Corn syrup's history dates back to the early 1800s, when a German-born chemist named Gottlieb Kirchhoff heated starch and sulfuric acid to create glucose syrup. Put simply, the acid helped break down the chain of joined-together molecules comprising starch into individual glucose molecules, along with some other compounds.

That’s essentially how corn syrup is made today, although enzymes are sometimes used in place of, or in addition to, acids to facilitate that breakdown. The starch in corn comes from the plant’s endosperm, the tissue that nourishes the developing plant. When the starch is isolated and broken down, the resulting corn syrup inhibits the crystallization of sugar and provides a smoother texture to many sweet treats. So candy corn does contain corn—or at least a syrupy sugar derived from corn.

Candy Corn Takes Shape

Renninger’s butter cream was a chewy substance that could be molded into any shape, making it a cheap alternative to marzipan, which was generally made from sugar, egg whites, and ground almonds. And corn kernels likely weren’t the first shape Renninger’s butter cream took. Inspired by nature, Renninger made miniature chestnuts, turnips, and peapods out of the confection. But it was his candy corn—distinguished by three stripes painstakingly poured by hand—that would eventually become a sensation.

During his initial tinkering, Renninger conducted some interesting market research. As his grandson Ken told The Palm Beach Post back in 2000, the elder Renninger would sometimes throw the proto-candy corn towards the family’s chickens. “When the chickens finally started coming after the corn,” Ken Renninger said, “he knew he had [the perfect shape]. If he had the chickens fooled … then he had the right thing.”

By 1898, Goeltiz (known today as Jelly Belly) was replicating Renninger’s recipe and producing candy corn on a larger scale. Back then, it was sometimes also known as chicken feed. That may seem like an odd marketing choice, but the name made perfect sense at the time: Though corn has a long and storied history in the Americas, by the late 19th century a lot of people in the United States viewed corn primarily as feed for livestock. Sure, people were eating cornbread and johnny cakes and even those new-fangled cornflakes, but in 1917 it was estimated that out of 2.7 billion bushels of corn produced in America, 86.3 percent of that was for animal feed and less than 4 percent was for human consumption.

The Challenge in Making Candy Corn

Despite the potentially less-than-appetizing associations, chicken feed was a hit. It became a common sight at candy stores, and Goelitz had trouble keeping up with demand.

Candy corn consists of three layers—generally a white tip, followed by an orange middle and yellow top. Due to its signature pattern, candy corn was extremely difficult to produce in the days before factory equipment did most of the work. Workers called runners had to carry buckets known as streamers that contained up to 45 pounds of the sugar and corn-syrup mixture down a conveyor belt laden with candy trays. The runners would pass the streamers over the trays, allowing a small stream of liquid to drip into the mold. Workers had to repeat this process with each color to make a single piece of candy.

Whether the different layers taste different or not is a matter of some debate: Though some blind tests online suggest certain tasters can differentiate between the layers, Vox claims that the only difference between each section is the artificial coloring. (By the way, 43 percent of people report eating the white part of a candy corn first and 10 percent start with the yellow end; 47 percent eat the whole thing at once.)

The amount of labor required to make candy corn look like candy corn made it impractical to manufacture year-round. According to Slate, candymakers started limiting the production season to March through November, which helped link candy corn to autumn and the harvest season. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that candy corn—or any mass-produced candy, for that matter—became a big deal during Halloween.

From Novelty Candy to Holiday Staple

Some historians claim antecedents of trick-or-treating in the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, but the tradition as we know it today has been practiced for less than a century in the U.S. In fact, if you saw a masked kid going door to door asking for handouts in late 19th century America, it was more likely to be Thanksgiving time. That tradition apparently grew out of a rather mean-spirited mimicry of poor Massachusetts residents who would go door to door asking, “Something for Thanksgiving?” The practice grew and eventually drew such ire that some New Yorkers were known to heat up so-called “red pennies” on their stoves and throw them onto the streets to burn the fingers of children who bent down to pick them up.

So how did Halloween trick-or-treating begin? A number of theories have been suggested. Some say that the door-to-door tradition was a way to connect communities, while others put more emphasis on the trickery. One account of a Halloween in 1923 noted that “the usual battalion of children covered all sections of the town demanding treats or else suffering the dire penalty of tricks for refusal.” Just four years later a different paper reports that young “heavily disguised” children were walking door to door demanding “trick or treat,” explaining “To treat was to be untricked, and the youthful hold-up men soon returned home bowed down with treats.” At that time, kids could likely expect to bring home nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods—not exactly the type of stuff that excites trick-or-treaters today.

Enter the candy companies. Through clever marketing, they had made Easter and Christmas major candy-buying events, and they were looking for an opportunity to push their products in the fall. Halloween was a no-brainer. People were already looking for treats to give to trick-or-treaters, and all the manufacturers had to do was downsize their offerings into bite-sized packages and slap some Halloween branding on the label. They didn’t need to do much to rebrand candy corn for the holiday. The treat was already associated with the season, it came in festive fall colors, and it was the perfect size for handing out to trick-or-treaters.

Halloween transformed candy corn from an agriculture-themed novelty candy to a seasonal staple. The candy industry now produces roughly 35 million pounds or 9 billion kernels of candy corn a year. There are even different types for different holidays—like red and green “reindeer corn” for Christmas and pink and red “Cupid corn” for Valentine's Day—but the vast majority of candy corn is sold in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

Fortunately for candymakers, mass-produced candy corn is no longer poured by hand. In modern factories, machines create molds for the candy by making triangular indents in sheets of cornstarch. These cornstarch molds then pass under automated nozzles that deposit the candy corn’s layers. The three colors are still layered separately, but because it’s machines doing the work instead of humans, it’s much less time-consuming.

The Sweet Taste of Candy Corn

The candy corn production process has been updated, but the actual recipe hasn’t changed much over the years. Candy corn still starts with a slurry of sugar and corn syrup mixed in a large vat. To create its smooth, creamy mouthfeel, candymakers add fondant—an icing made of sugar and corn syrup—and marshmallow—also made of sugar and corn syrup, plus gelatin for texture. Gelatin is a protein made from the collagen of animal bones, skin, and connective tissue. This gives it thickening properties, but also means your candy corn isn’t vegan-friendly.

And even if you can find candy corn that leaves gelatin off the ingredients list, it may still contain something called confectioner's glaze. That’s a nice word for lac-resin, a secretion produced by some species of insects native to Asia. It gives candy corn its glossy coating.

What is candy corn supposed to taste like, anyway? The answer isn’t plain sugar, and despite corn syrup being a main ingredient, it’s not supposed to taste like corn, either. According to Jelly Belly, the company that popularized the candy more than a century ago, “Candy Corn is a wonderful blend of creamy fondant, rich marshmallow and warm vanilla notes. When combined, these flavors create the distinct Candy Corn flavor. The texture is as important as the flavor. Our Candy Corn is creamy and smooth; never coarse. It should be like biting into butter."

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.