When 67-year-old Mary O'Brien was a girl in the 1950s and ‘60s, the best part of Halloween began after trick-or-treating. Once back home, she'd dump the contents of her plastic pumpkin onto the living room floor and begin searching, sorting and brokering trades with her siblings.
"I was looking for chocolate candy bars, especially Milky Ways,'’ says the retired nurse from Lancaster, New York. “And the great thing back then was that people gave out full-sized candy bars. They weren't like the mini bars you see given out today."
It's not only the size of the candy bars that has changed when it comes to American preferences for sweets. Over the decades, hard candies, chocolate, sour candies and chewy sweets have vied for the most popular spot.
In addition, on Oct. 21, the CDC updated its definition of what counts as close contact with someone who has COVID-19. It’s nowdefined as being within 6 feet of someone for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. So trick-or-treating with friends or spending time with neighbors, who could be asymptomatic virus carriers, may be off the table.
From Atomic Fireballs to M&Ms
O'Brien's Halloween sorting tradition was passed down to her kids and grandkids, though their candy preferences varied from hers. Her children coveted Skittles, a sugary confection too sweet for O'Brien's taste. But they inherited O'Brien's love of chocolate, especially Milky Way, the chocolate-coated nougat and caramel candy bar concocted in 1923 in an attempt to capture the taste of a popular malted milkshake.
Their Halloween preferences mirror those of Americans through the decades. Baby Ruth was the candy of choice in the 1920s, 3 Musketeers in the 1930s and M&M's during the 1940s.
The 1950s marked a shift in popular tastes, with a movement toward hard candies and more sugar-loaded confections. Atomic Fireballs, a hard candy that sets off a three-alarm fire in your mouth, were popular in the Cold War 1950s.
Candy tastes of the 1960s were dominated by SweeTARTS, while the 1970s brought a hankering for chewy items, such as Laffy Taffy. And Skittles, AirHeads and Nerds Rope dominated the ensuing decades, with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups reigning supreme since 2010.
Candy Corn remains controversial
Many old favorites are still going strong, says Crystal Lindell, editor of Candy Industry Magazine.
The Snickers bar, for example, has stood the test of time. That chewy mix of peanuts, nougat, caramel and chocolate ranked fourth in sales last Halloween, trailing only top-seller Skittles, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and M&M's, according to CandyStore.com.
Most Popular Halloween Candies 2019
2. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
6. Candy Corn
7. Hot Tamales
8. Tootsie Pops
9. Sour Patch Kids
10. Hershey Bars
Historically, chocolate has been recession-proof, and large candy manufacturers such as Mars Wrigley, Mondelēz and General Mills are hopeful it will be pandemic proof, too, during the Halloween season, which is considered the industry's “Super Bowl.” Chocolate sales are up 4.5 percent since March, and the old standbys, with some new twists, could fuel sales, despite drastic reductions in trick-or-treating because of coronavirus restrictions.
Manufacturers are banking on new products such as M&M's Chocolate Popcorn, Zombie Skittles, Vampire Hershey's Kisses, Reese's Franken-Cups (with green crème), marshmallow-stuffed Witch's Brew KitKats, Cookies ‘N’ Creme bars that look like fangs, and turkey dinner Candy Corn, which claims to “taste like a Thanksgiving meal.”
That turkey dinner product may add to Candy Corn's polarizing reputation. CandyStore.com ranked the controversial confection sixth in 2019 sales, but also placed it atop its list of worst Halloween candies.
"I don't hate it, but I only eat it in combination with M&M's,'’ O'Brien says. “I have an M&M with each piece of Candy Corn. Guess that's the chocolate-holic in me coming out again.”