As the author of the candy review site called Candy Blog, I eat a lot of sweets. I do my best to try new candies as they hit the market and to keep abreast of candy trends. Predictably, late October is a time when candy manufacturers release new products at a rapid-fire pace. But what’s struck me over the past five years or so is that the newest Halloween flavor trends aren’t really new at all—they’re just atypical applications of common seasonal flavors.
The ubiquitous flavors for the past three years have been caramel apple and candy corn. I’m talking about candy that’s supposed to taste like caramel apples, and candy that’s supposed to taste like candy corn—or candy corn that’s supposed to taste like something else. The pumpkin spice juggernaut is not an anomaly: Sweet treats are now cannibalizing other nostalgic confections, too.
Both caramel apples and candy corn—the original versions, I mean—have been around for generations. Caramel apples have been made for more than 100 years and were often served at Halloween parties that predate the current custom of trick-or-treating. (Before the advent of packaged candies, Americans celebrated Halloween by hosting open houses with homemade treats.) Candy corn was first introduced more than 120 years ago, but only became associated with Halloween after World War II. So it may feel like the flavors are suddenly everywhere, but it took a long time to get to this inundation.
Caramel apple is pretty much the hot flavor in candies this year. It’s obvious why the idea of caramel apples is so popular: it’s two flavors, two textures, and two great colors in one. It’s hard to find a person who says they don't like caramel or apples. In fact, a whole industry has sprung up around gourmet caramel apples, which often contain more coating than apple. It was probably only a matter of time before candy manufacturers took notice.
Although caramel-apple-flavored candy is fairly new, apple-flavored candy is not. In the 1960s, Jolly Ranchers, a line of hard candies, introduced a new flavor called green apple. It was tangier and more artificial-tasting than actual apples—but people loved it. The Green Apple Jolly Rancher did for apple flavor what grape Nehi soda had done for grape flavor, as far as American palates were concerned. Before Green Apple Jolly Ranchers, lime was the default flavor for green candies. Now, lime candies in popular fruit mixes are disappearing. DumDums lollipops made the switch in 1991, replacing their 1953 lime flavor with green apple. SweeTarts replaced lime with apple in 2001, Runts in 2009, and finally Skittles in early 2013.
The first green apple candy that introduced caramel to the mix was the Tootsie Caramel Apple Pop, introduced in 1995. It's a flat, green-apple-flavored hard candy lollipop covered in a dense caramel. For the most part, these pops look terrible in or out of the package; the caramel coating is uneven in thickness and tends to stick to the wrapper. The flavor is much better than the appearance would suggest, though. The caramel coating has a smooth and creamy dissolve and authentic burnt sugar notes. The green apple center is about as good as you could hope for in a lollipop. They’re on store shelves all year round, but during the fall they’re also available in an Orchard Mix that has three different apple flavored candy centers instead of the classic green apple.
Among the new crop of caramel apple candies, a few are worth seeking out.
The See’s Caramel Apple Lollypops are a gourmet version of the Tootsie pops, with a light apple-peel flavor infused into their dreamily smooth hard caramel.
Russell Stover’s makes dozens of seasonal candy varieties, but is now making Big Bite candies all year round. These Big Bite Caramel Apples are large apple-shaped caramel patties covered in decent if not exceptional chocolate. A bonus: They also come in a version topped with crushed peanuts.
Predictably, many of this season’s caramel apple candies do not live up to their inspiration.
Hershey’s new Twizzlers Caramel Apple Filled Twists feature a bland, chewy green candy rope filled with a caramel flavored paste. Wonka’s Caramel Apple Laffy Taffy folds the green apple flavor into its smooth chew, but the caramel flavor is completely lost and the color is like a mix of all the Play Doh colors (and kind of smells like it, too). Jolly Rancher Caramel Apple Crunch ’n Chew sounds like it should be perfect, since Jolly Rancher innovated the green apple flavor, but the hard candy here lacks that delicate smoothness and the chew at the center is just a flavored taffy. I also had high hopes for Caramel Apple Sugar Babies, since the original Sugar Babies are great caramels. But the grainy green coating that's supposed to contain the apple flavor smacks of artificiality.
Candy corn is the other seasonal confection that’s been treated as a flavor and applied to other candies. Unlike caramel apples, candy corn is starting at a disadvantage: Only 12 percent of Americans surveyed by the National Confectioners Association said that candy corn was their favorite Halloween candy, and many people use it as a decoration instead of eating it. In spite of widespread aversion to eating candy corn, candy manufacturers have been goosing the sugar kernels up with other flavor combinations in the hopes of selling more product. They’ve also been folding the flavor of candy corn into chocolate bars and candy.
As a flavor, candy corn is very simple. It’s a fondant, which is basically boiled sugar that becomes opaque and is then stabilized with a little egg white or gelatin. Think of candy corn as nuggets of frosting. Most candy corn has a light flavor with just a touch of honey.
The defining element of candy corn is not the flavor, but the look. Each piece of candy corn is a triangle with three layers of color: a yellow base, and orange middle, and a white top. This color combination has been applied to dozens of other candies for the past 10 years.*
The best candy corn themed spin-off on shelves right now is M&M’s White Chocolate Candy Corn. They look like regular M&M’s, but the center is made of white chocolate with a light strawberry note, and the shells are yellow, orange and white. They’re not for everyone (as is the case with candy corn), but they’re just as cloying and attractive as candy corn while still looking like M&M’s. Since they’re made with cocoa butter, they have a lot more fat than candy corn.
On the flip side, Hershey’s landed a real dud with Hershey’s Candy Corn Creme with Candy Bits. If you’re a fan of Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Crème bars, this version sounds like a winner. Yet it ends up tasting too fruity, and the “candy bits” are actually colored sprinkles, which make the bars look good but make the already waxy white confection even waxier.
Flavored candy corn—in other words, fondant kernels with different flavorings—is actually not a new phenomenon: Candy corn has always been available in a variety of flavors. Indian corn, which features a brown base flavored with cocoa, has been sold since the 1950s. But this year has seen the arrival of more strongly flavored and themed candy corn varieties.
Brach’s has two interesting versions this year: Caramel Macchiato Candy Corn and Apple Pie Candy Corn. The coffee notes of the caramel macchiato give the fondant a much richer flavor that makes the texture more appealing overall. The apple pie version actually looks like tiny little slices of apple pie, with a baked apple color and little white base like a piecrust. The flavor is quite mild, which is a relief when so many other fruit candies go overboard and end up smelling like a Yankee Candle shop. For instance: Starburst Original Fruit Flavored Candy Corn, a flavored candy corn that you should leave on the store shelves. The bright, multicolored kernels do look good, but they somehow end up tasting pre-digested.
While the candy aisles grab our attention with these newer flavor combinations, the truth about Halloween is that trick-or-treating is about tried-and-true favorites. Most homes give out the candy they like, so the largest share of sweets that go into kids bags are the same candy that we buy week after week: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, KitKat, and M&M’s. There will always be novelty candy and seasonal flavors, which will shift with changing sensibilities, but lion’s share of the $2.2 billion spent on Halloween candy is going to the same place it always has.
If seasonal novelties like candy-corn-flavored M&M’s and caramel-apple-flavored lollipops are popular enough, though, they’ll end up on shelves year round, and maybe even join the Halloween canon. Then we’ll restart the trend cycle as candy companies vie for our attention with new flavor mashups. Could we someday see caramel-apple-lollipop-flavored candy corn, or candy-corn-M&M’s-flavored taffy? Only time will tell.
Correction, Oct. 30, 2014: This article originally misstated that candy corn has an orange base and a yellow middle. It has a yellow base and an orange middle. (Return.)