A candy cane is a hard candy usually peppermint flavored and decorated with stripes. The candy is long, thin, and bent at the top to resemble a walking cane. These candies are made using a batch process, which involves mixing and cooking the candy base, forming the stick shapes, and putting it in the appropriate packaging. First introduced in the seventeenth century, candy canes have been a favorite holiday candy for hundreds of years. Today, the candy cane makes up a significant amount of the $1.4 billion Christmas candy market. In fact, billions of candy canes are made and consumed each year.
Candy canes are traditionally a Christmas holiday candy. The classic candy cane is a white candy with red stripes infused with either peppermint or wintergreen flavors. They are usually about 6 in (15 cm) tall and about 0.25 in (6 mm) thick. Over the years, candy manufacturers have introduced various modifications on this classic look. Today, candy canes vary in size from about 2-12 in (5-30 cm) tall. Their widths can also vary ranging from about the width of a pencil to over I in (2.5 cm) thick. A variety of flavors are available such as apple, watermelon, cinnamon, strawberry, and even chocolate. The colors of these products are often modified to better reflect the candy's flavor. For example, a green apple candy cane might be colored green with red stripes. Some manufacturers have changed even the familiar "cane" shape. The result is a wide variety of candy cane type products that are sold throughout the year.
Candy was made as far back as 3000 b.c. In fact, the first candy maker was probably a caveman who discovered the pleasant taste of honey from beehives. Archeological evidence indicates that the ancient societies of Egypt, China, and Greece were all involved with candy production using honey mixed with fruits and nuts. During the Middle Ages, a method for refining sugar from sugar cane was developed in Persia. Over the years, this technology was improved and spread throughout Europe. Various hard candies and licorice were introduced and became a part of people's diets.
There have been numerous legends about the development of the candy cane. These typically suggest that candy canes were created as a religious symbol for early Christians. Stories say that it was developed to symbolize different aspects of the burgeoning Christian faith. For example, the red and white stripes are supposed to represent Christ's blood and purity. However, the historical evidence does not support these claims. In fact, the candy was clearly introduced well after the establishment of Christianity in Europe.
Candy canes were probably first introduced over 350 years ago. Professional candy makers had learned that sugar could be stretched and rolled into various shapes. This prompted them to produce straight, white sugar sticks that were easy to eat. During the 1600s, people began to decorate their homes at Christmas time. This typically involved a tree and various sweets like cookies, cakes, and stick candy. The historical evidence indicates that candy canes were first given the cane shape in 1670 by a German choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral. He supposedly gave the children who sang in his choir sugar sticks that were bent like a shepherd's staff to keep them quiet during long services. The tradition of handing out these candies during Christmas services spread throughout Europe.
The candy cane was first introduced to America in 1847 by a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard. He decorated a Christmas tree with candy canes in his Wooster, Ohio home. Evidently his creation had inspired others and a tradition was born.
While people had occasionally enhanced the appearance of the white candy cane with colored sugar prints, it was not until the early nineteenth century that candy canes got their stripes. It is not known exactly who gave candy canes this characteristic, but they have been produced that way ever since. This is also about the time when the flavors of peppermint and wintergreen were added to make the product known today.
During the early part of the century, candy canes were made by hand. This process was extremely laborious. Candy canes were sold almost exclusively at a local level. In the 1950s a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller invented a machine that could make candy canes automatically. This sparked the mass production of the candy. Today, over 1.7 billion candy canes are sold each year.
Confectioners have steadily refined candy cane recipes and production methods. By incorporating new information about the characteristics of ingredients and food production processes, they have been able to make candy cane manufacturing an efficient process. The raw materials used to make candy canes are specifically chosen to produce the appropriate texture, taste, and appearance. Sweeteners are the primary ingredients, but recipes also call for water, processing ingredients, colorants, and flavorings.
Candy canes are primarily made up of sugar. When sugar (sucrose) is refined, it is typically provided as tiny grains or crystals. It is derived from beet and cane sugars. The sugar used in candy cane manufacture must be of high quality so that the proper texture and structure will be achieved. It is the unique physical and chemical characteristics of sugar that makes formation possible. When sugar is heated, it melts and becomes a workable syrup. The syrup can be manipulated, rolled, and fashioned. As it cools, the syrup becomes thicker and begins to hold its shape. When the candy is completely cooled, the sugar crystals remain together and form the solid candy cane.
Corn syrup is also used to produce candy canes. It is a modified form of starch, and like sugar it provides a sweet flavor. When it is mixed with the sugar, it inhibits the natural tendency of sugar to crystallize. Crystallization would result in a grainy appearance and a brittle structure. Corn syrup has the added effect of making the sugar concoction more opaque. Without the corn syrup and other ingredients, the candy would be transparent. The corn syrup also helps to control moisture retention and limits microbial spoilage. Beyond sugar and corn syrup, other sweeteners are sometimes incorporated into the candy cane recipe. These may include glucose syrups, molasses, or other crude sugars. Some low calorie candy cane recipes may incorporate artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
Certain ingredients are put in the candy cane recipe to aid in production. To dilute the sugar and make it workable, water is used. During the manufacturing process the water is steadily boiled off, and the end product has much less water than what it started with. Another processing ingredient is cream of tartar. This compound has the effect of producing air bubbles that help expand the sugar loaf and make it more stable. Salt also helps to adjust the chemical characteristics of the syrup. Typically, a small amount is used so that it is undetectable in the final product.
Colorants and flavorings
A variety of other ingredients may be incorporated into a candy cane recipe to produce various effects. To give the candy flavor and color, wintergreen or peppermint oils are added. Other natural flavors obtained from fruits, berries, honey, molasses, and maple sugar have also been used in candy cane production. Artificial flavors have also been added to improve taste. Additionally, fruit acids like citric acid and lactic acid can be added to provide flavor. Artificial colors such as certified Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C) colorants are used to modify the color of the final product. In the United States, the federal government regulates these colors and qualifies each batch of colorant produced by the dye manufacturers. This ensures that no carcinogenic compounds are added to food products.
Making the batch
- 1 The first step of production involves blending the ingredients together in a large vessel. Typically, a stainless steel kettle is used that is equipped with automatic mixers. Ingredients can be poured or pumped into the batch by workers known as compounders. At this step, the water, sugar, corn syrup, and other processing ingredients are combined. They are then heated to over 300°F (141.5°C) and allowed to cook until they form an amber liquid.
Working the candy
- 2 While it is still hot, the sugar mixture is poured on water-cooled tables. The candy cools slightly and is sent to the working machines. These devices are equipped with arms that stretch the candy repeatedly until it looks silky white.
- 3 While the candy is being stretched, a line worker adds the proper amount of flavoring. Also, coloring may be added at this point.
- 4 Another worker then takes a large portion (95 lb [43 kg]) of the warm candy and forms it into a loaf. Part of the loaf is put off to the side, dyed, and cut into strips. For the traditional candy cane, this portion is dyed red. It will become the red stripes in the final product. The 4 in-long (10 cm) red strips are then pressed at set intervals into the white loaf.
Extrusion and candy forming
- 5 The loaf can then be sent to the extruder machines to convert it into a candy cane. The loaf passes through the extruder and comes out the other side on a conveyor as a long strand of candy. The strand runs under cutters that slice it at set intervals to produce individual candies. They are then passed through a device that bends the candy. Since the candy is still slightly warm it can still be shaped as desired. Some extruders can handle over 2,000 lb (907 kg) of candy an hour.
- 6 After the candy cane is formed, it is put into its packaging. Some manufacturers wrap the candy cane in a clear plastic. This is done right as it is exiting the extruder. The plastic is then wrapped around the candy cane and sealed by a heat sealer.
- 7 In most instances, a set amount of candy canes are collected and boxed in secondary packaging. These boxes are passed through a shrink-wrap machine and sealed. This extra layer of packaging ensures that no moisture damages the product. The boxes are then put into shipping containers, put on pallets, loaded on trucks, and delivered to stores around the country.
Quality control is an integral part of all candy production. The first phase of control begins with tests on the incoming ingredients. Prior to use, lab technicians test ingredients to ensure they meet company specifications. Sensory evaluations are done on characteristics such as appearance, color, odor, and flavor. Other physical and chemical characteristics may also be tested such as liquid viscosity, solid particle size, and moisture content. Manufacturers depend on these tests to ensure that the ingredients used will produce a consistent batch of candy canes.
The next phase of quality control is done on the candy cane paste. This includes pH, viscosity, appearance, and taste testing. During production, quality control technicians check physical aspects of the extruded candy. A comparison method is typically used. In this method, the newly made product is compared to an established standard. For example, the flavor of a randomly sampled candy cane may be compared to a standard candy cane produced at an early time. Some manufacturers employ professional sensory panelists. These people are specially trained to notice small differences in tactile, taste, and appearance properties. Instrumental tests that have been developed by the confectionery industry over the years may also be used.
Modern candy cane production began in the 1950s. Since then manufacturers have steadily improved methods. In the future, improvements will be made to allow for even faster production with fewer workers. Improvements in the product may include lower calorie versions to appeal to more calorie conscious consumers. Manufacturers will undoubtedly create new flavors and colors to increase the number of candy canes sold in a year.
Where to Learn More
Alikonis, Justin. Candy Technology. Westport: AVI Publishing Co., 1979.
Booth, R. Gordon. Snack Food. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.
Macrae, R., et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Food Science, Food Technology and Nutrition. San Diego: Academic Press, 1993.
Walburg, L. The Legend of the Candy Cane. New York: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997.
National Confectioners Association. 24 September 2001. <http://www.candyusa.org>.