PHILADELPHIA — Candy corn — invented ages ago in Philadelphia, according to legend — may be even more polarizing than that other autumnal aroma, pumpkin spice.
The police department in Fort Collins, Colorado, once said (only partly in jest?) that this tricolored staple of Halloween should be a crime. Many others, to judge by the millions of pounds of the stuff sold each year, can’t get enough. “One of the best,” says rap star Rico Nasty.
It turns out there’s a science to our love-hate relationship with the ubiquitous sweet, once dubbed “Satan’s earwax” by food writers at the Takeout media site.
Scientists have measured a wide range in human preference for sugar — our sweet tooth — and candy corn contains a higher percentage of sugar than almost anything on the shelf.
People with an extreme sweet tooth, the types who tend to like ultra-sweet candies such as candy corn, represent 20% of the population, says Danielle R. Reed, a taste and smell researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
“You have to have the sweetest of the sweet tooths to like candy corn,” she said. “It’s almost pure sugar. Not everybody grooves to that sweet vibe.”
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To be specific, the waxy orange, yellow, and white candies are roughly three-quarters sugar by weight, said May M. Cheung, a nutrition scientist at Brooklyn College in New York.
That’s way more than soft drinks (typically 10% to 12% sugar) and more than most other candies. Hershey’s Kisses, for example, tip the scales at 56.1% sugar, according to the USDA.
But there likely is more to strong feelings about candy corn than sugar alone, said Reed, Monell’s associate director. Much of the way we taste food is tied up in its scent, and there likely is a range in how people perceive the proprietary aromas in this candy, or any other food, she said.
Asked to describe the flavor, University of Georgia food scientist William Kerr termed it “buttercream — sort of sugar, butter, honey, and vanilla.”
In addition, preferences for foods are often rooted in context — where and how the person first encountered them, says Reed.
“My husband, bless his heart, is English, and he doesn’t understand Halloween,” she said. And as for candy corn? “He just thinks it’s bizarre. He thinks it’s a foreign food item, no can do.”
The scientific study of sugar is not just for curiosity’s sake. The results could inform efforts to curb diabetes and obesity. Some of Reed’s colleagues are embarking on a study of whether, by eliminating sugar intake for an extended period, a person can reduce a preference for the substance.
“It’s something that people already believe,” she said, “but the data on it are a little thin.”
While some humans love candy corn, other members of the animal kingdom may be less keen. At the University of Alabama-Birmingham, scientists once offered a variety of foods to lab rats that were bred to be binge eaters. The animals went to town on Oreo-cookie pellets and Crisco but ate half as many calories’ worth of candy corn.
But what of the Philadelphia history? Candy corn was invented by George Renninger, an employee of Philly’s Wunderle Candy Co. in the 1880s, “according to legend,” says the National Confectioners Association.
A few years ago, the Billy Penn media site delved deeper, tracking down a photo of a wooden Wunderle candy bucket from that era. On its side were printed the words the best butter cream corn.
Or, if you’re not a fan, maybe it was the worst.