O, Christmas treat: How candy canes sweeten the holidays
Millions of the minty striped sweets are made each year to deck halls, trim trees and delight consumers.
Candy canes are a simple mix of sugar, corn syrup and flavored oils, yet the treats are so popular they are the number one selling non-chocolate candy in the month of December, according to the National Confectioners Association.
Every year when the holiday season rolls around, people have an inevitable stash of candy canes either in the office or at home. From mini to oversized, peppermint to fruit-flavored, candy canes have a way of dominating candy cravings in December. But why?
Why are candy canes associated with Christmas?
Legend has it that the ancestor of the candy cane appeared in 1670 when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany handed out white sugar sticks to his young singers to keep them quiet during the long mass.
Greg Cohen, the owner of Tallahassee, Florida boutique candy shop Lofty Pursuits, told Food Dive there's little truth to that story.
“The first mention we have about candy canes being associated with Christmas was in 1874," he said. "They started before that and they had nothing to do with Christmas.”
Originally, they were just another form of hard candy. It wasn’t until centuries after the original bright white sugar sticks became popular that candy canes gained their hallmark peppermint flavoring and red stripes. In fact, 1904 is around the time when stripes became a familiar sight on candy canes, Cohen told Food Dive.
Then, the mid-20th century brought about the mechanization of candy making, which, in large part thanks to Spangler Candies, allowed candy canes to proliferate as a holiday treat in a host of flavors.
Today, Spangler Candies produces 2.7 million candy canes daily in 24 different flavors, according to the manufacturer’s website. Cohen, on the other hand, said that “we might make 230 candy canes (a day) if we’re lucky.”
Small batches but mighty sales
Cohen’s small batches add up — especially during the holiday season. About 90% of candy canes are sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to the National Confectioners Association.
Cohen, who produces all his confections by hand on Victorian machines, said his candy canes are so popular that he sells out every year. He makes about 20,000 handmade ones each season.
“People love them so much, they’re now at a point where they can’t get them in time for Christmas but they’re still ordering them like crazy,” Cohen said.
Although Cohen's sales will trickle on a few weeks past Christmas, the crooked peppermint candies are a treat that is inextricable from the season. He said every holiday has its own candy traditions, and some sweets like candy canes just can't make the jump to be relevant during other holidays.
As a result, the Christmas season is vital to confectioners.
“We make double what we make the rest of the year as a general rule. It may be more than that,” Cohen said.
"People love them so much, they’re now at a point where they can’t get them in time for Christmas, but they’re still ordering them like crazy."
Owner, Lofty Pursuits
In order to prepare for the season, Cohen and his five confectioners begin production in late October. They continue to make candy canes all season to keep the correct quantity of the right flavors in stock.
“When it’s a week and a half before Christmas, we probably have three or four batches (with each batch containing around 250 pieces) of candy canes left. We don’t want to have leftover candy,” Cohen explained.
This year, he says they are selling peppermint, spearmint, cherry, blue raspberry, and blackberry, root beer, and white peppermint candy canes.
Each year, Cohen noted that he gets asked for more and more flavors to be added to his repertoire as demand for the holiday treat continues to grow. Seasonal candy boasts a compound annual growth rate of 5.8%, ahead of everyday candy sales (3.0%) and the confectionery category as a whole (3.4%), according to Chicago-based IRI.
Despite the growth in seasonal candy, not all holidays sell the same. Cohen explained that even though every year he has a Christmas in July sale, he is lucky to sell 200 candy canes.
"Candy canes require a light touch on the hook to get it right and everything perfectly smooth, so we like to do a batch or two in the summer to keep up our fingers and our practice.”
Portions of the candy cane making process remain done by hand on a boutique and industrial scale due to the nature of the candy itself. Made from two ingredients, cane sugar and corn syrup, candy canes are kneaded until they are porous with air bubbles.
Although undeniably tasty, these ingredients present two interesting challenges to confectioners: shipping and sugar.
Due to the candy making process — which Cohen describes like making glass — candy canes are so brittle that they “want to break if you look at it wrong.” As a result, shipping becomes a costly endeavor.
“Shipping is about 50% of the first four ounces,” he said. It isn’t until he sells two pounds to a customer that shipping becomes a negligible cost.
“But how many people buy more than two pounds of candy with me? Not that many.” His average sale is $30, and he estimates two pounds of candy canes costs around $200.
Of course, bigger manufacturers don’t face these constraints because of their shipping contracts, but Cohen argues that doing so sacrifices the flavor of the candy itself.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the consumption of sweeteners, including sugar and corn syrup, was down 15% during the past 17 years. In response, ingredient and food manufacturers have been trying to identify the next best low- or no-calorie natural sweeteners.
"They bring back memories of years past and flavors that people don’t even know they’re missing. And they just put a smile on your face."
Owner, Lofty Pursuits
A growing number of food manufacturers are experimenting with stevia in their products. Cohen said he has also seen isomalt — a low-calorie sugar alcohol — being used as a sweetener in better-for-you candies.
While that question of what to use in place of sugar remains up for debate, manufacturers and consumers are still shying away from corn-syrup, the key ingredient in both Spangler’s and Cohen’s candy canes. Cohen expressed his doubts about the longevity of the trend.
“On a macro level, perhaps. On a micro level, definitely not," he said. "Considering how attractive sweet things are to humans, I doubt it will ever be a real problem.”
The candy industry produced $9 billion in revenue in 2018 and has grown 0.8% each year for the past five years. Clearly, the American consumer's affinity for sugary-sweet foods isn’t going to change any time soon.
Especially when it comes to candy canes, the combination of sugary sweetness and a dose of nostalgia is likely to keep these traditional treats on shelves for many years to come. For Cohen, the reason for American’s love affair with these sugary canes is simple.
“They bring back memories of years past and flavors that people don’t even know they’re missing. And they just put a smile on your face,” he said.