It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… and one sweet treat many of us love at this time of year is the tasty red and white peppermint flavor of candy canes. As an Expert Dietitian specialising in supporting plant-based and vegan families, I’m eager to explore a common question: Are candy canes dairy-free and vegan?
As we deck the halls, start with the hot cocoa, this query becomes even more pertinent among those following a plant-based lifestyle. Candy canes, a staple of Christmas festivities, hanging proudly on our Christmas Tree, often spark curiosity regarding their dietary suitability. I’m here to delve into this further with a close look at the ingredients of candy canes.
So, are Candy Canes Dairy Free & Vegan?
So yes, generally candy canes are dairy-free and vegan, and here’s why.
What are the ingredients in Candy Canes?
Being vegan, candy canes are typically made of; cane sugar, corn syrup, peppermint extract or flavor, and artificial food colorings. These ingredients means that they are dairy-free and vegan friendly. But, they aren’t exactly a healthy food and should be enjoyed as an occasional ‘treat’.
A history with a Peppermint twist
Candy canes, with their distinct red and white stripes and peppermint essence – often derived from natural flavors – have been a cherished Christmas tradition for generations. Their history, however, is as twisted and colorful as the canes themselves, wrapped in layers of folklore and mystery.
The origins of the candy cane are steeped in intrigue, with no definitive account of who first created this iconic treat. According to a Time article – Origins of Candy Canes, the first appearance of candy canes in the United States dates back to 1847. It was then that German-Swedish immigrant August Imgard adorned a blue spruce tree with candy canes and paper ornaments, introducing this sweet delight to a new audience.
Further adding to the candy cane’s rich history, an article from History of Candy Canes delves into the symbolic nature of its design. It is claimed that the shape of the candy cane was crafted to symbolize Christian values. The “J” shape of the candy cane is said to represent Jesus, while when inverted, it resembles a shepherd’s staff.
However, the candy cane as we know it today – with its red and white stripes and it’s natural peppermint flavors – didn’t gain widespread popularity until much later. It wasn’t until the 1950s, a century after Imgard’s innovations, that candy canes became a massively popular treat. This increase in popularity aligned with advancements in candy cane technology, highlighted by companies like Spangler Candy Company. Today, this specific candy cane accounts for 45% of all candy canes produced in the USA.
Before this technological leap, local candy makers meticulously crafted the peppermint candy by hand into its iconic shape. Now, these delightful food products are a staple in almost all grocery stores during the festive season.
Red Alert; Vegan Concerns with coloring.
Historically, the vibrant red hue of some candy canes was achieved using a dye derived from crushed beetles. This of course an animal product that is a definite no-go for vegans. This traditional coloring method, of course, utilized animal-derived ingredients, specifically carmine, which is sadly extracted from these insects.
Today, the candy industry, including many brands producing candy canes, has shifted towards more vegan-friendly practices.
The majority of manufacturers now use artificial food colorings instead of animal-derived dyes. This transition meant there were no concerns about animal products.
However, vigilance remains crucial of course. When selecting candy canes, it’s important to always look at the main ingredient list. Keep an eye out for terms that signal the presence of animal products. These include carmine, carminic acid, carmine lake, crimson lake, natural red dye, cochineal, cochineal extract, E120, and natural red 4. By avoiding these ingredients, you can ensure that your festive treats align with your vegan dietary values and are free from hidden animal products.
The move towards artificial colorings in candy canes reflects a broader trend in the food industry to accommodate any dietary restrictions or preferences and ethical considerations. It’s a reminder of the importance of informed consumer choices and the impact these choices have on our health, ethics, and the environment.
Thankfully, this practice is not used as often these days. But, if you’re not sure of an ingredient in the list you are reading, do a quick search of the dye name to check.
Watch out for Traces of Egg
Many candy canes state, on the ingredients list that ‘this product does not contain peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat or gluten,’.
But I found that some, such as these Original Candy Peppermint Candy Canes from Gretna Green, state in the allergens that they ‘may contain traces of egg.’ This is not only a no-go for those following a vegan lifestyle but also with food allergies.
Always check labels and allergen information, and opt for manufacturers that use dedicated equipment to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
Gourmet Candy canes may not be dairy free and vegan
Gourmet candy canes often deviate from simple ingredients, embracing more elaborate additions. They may be dipped in or filled with milk chocolate, butterscotch, and other toppings or fillings. Consequently, these varieties are likely to contain dairy products and/or other animal derivatives. So, it’s a good idea to stick with the traditional varieties of candy canes.
5 of the best Dairy Free & Vegan Candy Cane Brands
Currently, the classic red and white peppermint candy canes typically do not contain any dairy, with most being vegan-friendly based on their ingredients.
Here’s a highlight of some top dairy-free and vegan candy canes from well-known brands:
Spangler Candy Canes – Candy Canes Peppermint Red White 12-Stick Box (150g / 5.3oz) – €4.49. The original!
YumEarth Candy Canes – holiday organic candy canes – 1 box of 10 candy canes – $12.99
Natural Candy Store – Sweet Organics Peppermint Flavored Organic Candy Canes * 10 PC – $4.19
Iceland – Orion Confectionery Candy Canes 144g – £1
Poundland – Christmas Peppermint Candy Canes (Pack Of 12) – £1
Vegan Candy Cane Desserts
If you’re feeling inundated with candy canes this festive season, remember they have a long shelf-life. You can try storing them using parchment paper (to keep them sticking to each other) and use in other recipes. Yes, candy canes can be a versatile ingredient for creating delightful holiday desserts.
Here are three of my favourite recipes
There is a great recipe ‘Vegan Chocolate Peppermint Bark Pudding’ from Vegnews – a simple, yet rich winter dessert . Yes ok, it’s not exactly healthy as it includes white sugar, coconut cream, a little sea salt, vegan white chocolate chips, drizzles of dark chocolate, and of course sweet peppermint candy. But, it’s a treat!
I am also loving this Vegan Peppermint Bark recipe from Loving it Vegan. This recipe has a layer of dark chocolate topped with vegan white chocolate and crushed candy cane topping for a festive dessert
Finally, these Nora Cooks ‘Vegan Chocolate Peppermint Cookies’ can make the perfect holiday dessert and have a brownie-like texture, are filled with chocolate chips, crunchy candy cane pieces, and are completely moreish!
Sugar Sugar Sugar! Naughty but Nice!
So, the iconic red and white peppermint candy canes, a staple of our holiday season, offer a delightful blend of naughty and nice. While they might meet our daily value for sugar, enjoyed in moderation, they bring joy to the festive period. Regarding the question of whether peppermint candy canes are vegan, the majority are indeed dairy-free and suitable for vegans, typically composed of dry ingredients without animal derivatives.
However, as with any food product, it’s wise to scrutinize the ingredient list on the packaging to confirm it aligns with your dietary needs.
Wishing you a holiday season brimming with sweetness and the simple pleasure of vegan peppermint candy canes!
Hannah is an Expert Registered Dietitian specialising in Vegan Family Nutrition and Cows Milk Protein Allergy.
She is a respected figure in the field of nutrition and a captivating speaker and sought after media spokesperson being featured in esteemed publications including the Sunday Times, Independent and Huffington Post.
- Registered Dietitian
- First Class Degree in Nutrition
- Over 15 years experience working in the field of nutrition
- Respected Media Spokesperson both in the UK & USA; quoted online, TV and in local and international news
- Writer & Researcher, supporting the BDA and PEN Nutrition