For The Love Of Halloween, What Is The Actual Flavor Of Candy Corn?

Candy corn is as divisive as a seasonal food can be. It's the most hated Halloween candy in America, yet millions of tons of the stuff are sold each year. It's ignited countless arguments, but while we've been fighting over whether or not candy corn tastes good, a bigger question seems to have slipped right by us. What the heck is that flavor to begin with? It's sugary, of course, but there's more to it than that, a subtle, yet unmistakable hint of something that can only be described as "candy corn." 

Like the mysterious flavor of bubblegum, the only thing you can accurately compare the taste of candy corn to is itself. But there has to be something behind that flavor, some magical Willy Wonka-type blend of ingredients that come together to create something unique. So, what exactly is it?

If you thought the secret of candy corn's flavor could be found in its ingredients list, think again. The largest manufacturer of candy corn is Brach's, and the key flavoring agent the company lists among its ingredients is ... "artificial flavor." So helpful. However, there is another ingredient listed that provides a better clue: honey. In fact, Brach's website describes the product as having "the real-honey flavor candy corn connoisseurs stand by." So there you have it — candy corn is honey-flavored. But is it really? There's clearly more going on with those mysterious "artificial flavors," and the answer only grows murkier when you look at other candy corn brands.

Where did the flavor of candy corn come from?

The mystery of candy corn's flavor is particularly tricky to determine, because nobody is certain of its origins. It's widely believed that candy corn was invented in the 1880s by George Renninger of the Wunderle Candy Company (variously spelled Wunderlee). However, this story has only been passed down through oral history and cannot be confirmed. The details of Renninger's original recipe (and what he intended candy corn to taste like) have been lost to the ages.

In 1898, the Goelitz Confectionery Company began manufacturing candy corn on a mass scale. Goelitz remains active to this day under a different moniker: Jelly Belly. As the first major brand to sell it, the company could make a strong case as the ultimate authority on candy corn. Its ingredients list also hinges on the enigmatic "artificial flavor," but this time, the company describes its taste as vanilla.

So, is it honey or vanilla? The answer could be both. Because Brach's sells the most candy corn (95% of the American supply, per Marketplace), the company's candy corn is the flavor fans know best. But many people pressed to describe the flavor of candy corn would still mention vanilla. Multiple cooks, including Alton Brown, have released copycat candy corn recipes using vanilla as the flavoring agent, with no honey whatsoever. Considering that so many people sense vanilla in candy corn, it's quite possible that imitation vanilla is one of those mysterious artificial flavors on the label.

Do candy corn's layers have different flavors?

Debates about the flavor of candy corn inevitably come around to the matter of layers. Is there any difference in flavor between the yellow base, the orange center, and the white tip? The answer should be no. Each layer of candy corn is made from the same ingredients, save for the dyes (both Brach's and Jelly Belly use a combination of Yellow 6, Yellow 5, and Red 3). And yet, many people claim to taste each layer differently.

In a blind taste test conducted by Thrillist, three out of four test subjects correctly identified each layer of candy corn, and a similar test by Minnesota radio station MIX108 turned up the same result. The pieces had been cut up to prevent the tasters from identifying them by size, but multiple subjects still cited a textural difference. This makes it hard to tell how much flavor influenced their answers as opposed to texture. Because candy corn is manufactured one layer at a time, it's possible that there could be some variance in production, but that can't be determined without more proof.

Ultimately, a clear definition of candy corn's flavor is impossible to pin down. But there's one thing everyone agrees on: Candy corn doesn't taste like corn. So, what's with the name? Candy corn is meant to look like kernels of corn. This agricultural theme was chosen to appeal to farmers, who made up 50% of the American labor force in the 1880s.