Candy canes: The quintessential Christmas sweet that you're probably seeing all day every day right about now—from store shelves to holiday displays to that pesky candy bowl in the office kitchen. But when was the last time you gave any thought to the red-and-white striped confection? Actually, it doesn't matter. Your new answer is now, thanks to this list of 10 fascinating facts about the ubiquitous holiday treat.
1. We eat a ton of candy canes
More than one and a half billion candy canes are produced every single year. And not surprisingly, almost all of them are purchased between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when 90 percent of candy canes are sold, according to the National Confectioners Association.
2. The earliest version dates back nearly 350 years
Many believe that peppermint sticks in the shape of a cane, which eventually evolved into the candy canes we know today, were first created in Cologne, Germany, around 1670; that's when a choirmaster had a local candy maker whip them up to hand out to the children during holiday church service in order to keep them quiet. (Not a bad idea, actually.) The candy began spreading throughout Europe over the next few hundred years, eventually making its way to America in the late 1800s.
3. There are various theories about that cane shape
"There might be some religious association with them. Some people say that they were meant to resemble a shepherd's crook," says Beth Kimmerle, confectionary expert and author of Candy: The Sweet History. "Some people go as far as to even say they're in the shape of a J for Jesus, which seems like a little bit of a stretch. My instinct is that they were something that was easy to hang on a tree, and ultimately it had a little handle on it so that you could hold onto the end of it nicely while eating it."
4. The flavor comes from oil
While some companies that produce the canes today use natural flavorings (or "natural flavors"), many versions still use straight-up peppermint oil like they did in the old days. Usually the oil is combined with a bit of cornstarch and then folded into the heated mixture of sugar and corn syrup as it's cooling.
5. You can see how it's done for yourself
That's if you happen to be in the Denver area. Because that city is where candy maker Hammond's Candies, which has been around since 1920 and boasts that it still makes its candy canes by hand, gives tours of its factory, where you'll get to see the whole process. And, actually, stretching out that sugary red-and-white mixture looks kinda fun.
6. Candy canes used to be just white
Before colorings and flavorings became more accessible to candy makers around the late 1800s, it would have been way too expensive for the average candy store owner to create the red stripe, says Kimmerle, who adds that the white color came from a natural process. "You get clear hard candy when you don't aerate it. So to get it white, they'd stick a hook on their candy store wall and they would aerate it, and that process is how hard candy turns white. The striping started happening once these food-grade, commercially-available colorants started becoming more readily available to confectioners."
7. They're kind of healthy (at least more than other candies)
OK, so if you've sworn off sugar, then you'll have to pass, but traditional candy canes have only around 50ish calories each (and less than 17 calories in each mini version)—not bad for a sweet treat that lasts at least a few minutes (hopefully). And the touted health benefits of peppermint are vast—everything from relieving headaches to soothing stomach troubles to supporting liver function. So, you can ahead and have one without dealing with the guilt you'll inevitably feel over just about everything else you'll be eating and drinking this month.
8. A pastry chef holds the record for biggest candy cane
In 2012, pastry chef Alain Roby, who's based in Geneva, Illinois, broke the Guinness World Record for the longest candy cane when he unveiled a creation that measured 51 feet in length. He told Chicagoist that the process took about three weeks to design and build and involved 900 pounds of sugar. The guy clearly has a knack for large, sugary feats: He also holds the world record for tallest cooked sugar sculpture (at nearly 13 feet), which was created to resemble Chicago's John Hancock building, as well as the tallest chocolate sculpture, a 20-foot replica of some NYC skyscrapers.
9. Candy Cane Day is almost here
Taking a different approach than its fall counterpart Candy Corn day (which is the day before after Halloween, by the way), Candy Cane Day falls on December 26, ostensibly so you have a reason to devour all those leftover candy canes that have been sitting around.
10. Don't like peppermint? You have more options than ever
"Now it's like anything goes. There's every flavor under the sun," says Kimmerle. And we're not just talking fruit flavors or candy canes meant to taste like other kinds of candy, (though there are plenty of those available). We're talking cray-zeeeee flavors. These days, you can get the cane in flavors like pickle, wasabi and, of course, the trendiest flavor of all: bacon.
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