What are Jelly Beans?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Jelly beans are bean-sized sugary confections with a chewy inner layer and a crisp candy coating. These confections are quite popular in many parts of the world, and they can be found in a range of flavors from the mundane to the exotic. One notable manufacturer of jelly beans is the Jelly Belly company, based in the United States, which makes an array of regular flavors along with special seasonal versions. Incidentally, if you have a passion to see jelly beans being made, Jelly Belly offers tours of its Fairfield, California and Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin factories.

The earliest references to jelly beans came during the U.S. Civil War, when candy manufacturers sent them to troops.
The earliest references to jelly beans came during the U.S. Civil War, when candy manufacturers sent them to troops.

These small confections are based on some very old candymaking techniques, although many of the flavors used are quite modern. The recipe for the inner filling of jelly beans is derived from Turkish delight, a gummy confection which has been made from starch and sugar in Turkey since at least the 1500s, while the outer candy coating is based on recipes which have been used in the Middle East since the 1700s. Middle Eastern confections are famously tooth-numbingly sweet, due to the high amount of sugar used, and jelly beans are no exception.

The first known appearance of the jelly bean was in the American Civil War, when candy manufacturers sent jelly beans to the troops. These candies are fairly stable in a wide variety of conditions, which makes them useful as a sweet supplement to military rations, and while the range of flavors wasn't as diverse as it was today, it established a market for the sweet treat, and soon numerous confectioners were making their own jelly beans.

Fruit flavors are especially popular for jelly beans, but many companies make novelty flavors as well, in everything from chocolate to popcorn. Some consumers enjoy mixing jelly beans to create their own flavor blends, such as a fruit salad, or a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Many consumers also have favorite flavors, and some jelly beans companies sell their beans individually packaged or in separated bulk jars to allow consumers to make their own jelly bean blends. In addition to being eaten out of hand, jelly beans are also sometimes used to decorate baked goods, especially during the winter holidays.

In the early 20th century, “jelly bean” was used as slang to describe a particularly foppish or vain individual. Alas, this colorful slang term is no longer in use, along with many other rather delightful items of slang from the 1910s and 1920s. Jelly beans themselves go by a few alternate names, including candy beans, with some people referring to them as “jelly bellies,” in a reference to the famous manufacturer.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Did you know they now have energy jelly beans? Like those energy drinks only in jelly bean form?!

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