Did you know that the candy cane you're probably dipping into your coffee in an attempt to jumpstart your morning came from a huge, hideous candy log? Find out how that candy was made, how it became whitened, and what that ultra-thin red stripe is.
'Tis the season to eat a lot of sugar, foisted upon you by well-meaning coworkers. Candy canes have been around for a long time, since potentially as early as the 1600s, when people didn't have fancy flavorings and just sucked forlornly on sticks of boiled sugar until they died of who-knows-what. To cheer up the yuletide season, someone bent the top of the stick into a hook, to look like the shepherds' crooks from the Christmas story. This was such an outrageous innovation that everyone presumably forgot about the hygienic hardships of 17th century living.
Nowadays the process is more industrialized, but it starts out with the same ingredients. Water, sugar, and corn starch (yes, there's even corn in candy canes) are boiled until they're a thick yellow syrup. Peppermint flavoring is added, and this disgusting, yellowy mush is kneaded until it's consistent. It's then stretched and restretched around a central pole. This forces air bubbles into the candy cane material, bubbles that most of us have seen when they've broken a cane in half (or just opened the box to find most of them shattered already).
This immense density of tiny bubbles does the same thing to the candy cane goop that it does to water. It bends and diffracts the light coming in many different directions. This tangle of different waves of light makes the candy cane material turn from an unappealing yellow to a bright white. When enough air has been forced in, the candy cane material isn't split up into little pieces or forced through a thin sieve but mushed together into a giant cylindrical log that can be the size of a human being's waist.
Another smaller batch of candy cane material is then dyed dark red and not subject to as much aeration. Instead, it's stretched out into a single band that is wrapped around the log lengthwise. This is the stripe that we see. I had always assumed that the stripe was so thin because it was painted on. Actually, the log is taken and spun, like a piece of dough between a person's hands, putting an even pressure on all sides.
This pressure is applied by a series of machines or a series of hands and makes it thinner and thinner, while keeping the the proportions. It is twisted slightly as it grows. Now the straight line of red seems to wrap around it like a spiral. The red striped becomes a thin layer of candy that becomes ultra-thin as the log is spun into a thin stick.