What is Candy Floss?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Candy floss is the same thing as cotton candy. Both names are adopted from the original name, fairy floss. Two Nashville, Tennessee candy makers dubbed this light as air and super sweet confection fairy floss in 1897. They created an electric machine that would produce the spun sugar, and sold this confection at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where it was extremely popular.

Amusement parks are one place that people can buy candy floss.
Amusement parks are one place that people can buy candy floss.

How candy floss is made explains the way it is shaped, like puffs or clouds of sweet stuff. Usually the candy floss contains only two ingredients, sugar and food coloring. A small bowl in the center of the machine warms the sugar and then presses it through tiny holes where it spins out as floss or fine strands, into a large circular bowl surrounding the heated bowl.

Cotton candy should be consumed on a rare basis, especially because it's unlikely a person will have time to brush his or her teeth after eating it.
Cotton candy should be consumed on a rare basis, especially because it's unlikely a person will have time to brush his or her teeth after eating it.

People making the floss use sticks, typically white cardboard ones to gather up a cloud of the floss. If not served immediately, the cotton candy is usually bagged in plastic bags so it will retain its texture, and it doesn’t have a terrific shelf life, as many who buy candy floss at the fair and save it for a few days realize. Within a few days the fibers become harder, and if moisture touches the cotton candy the effect is amplified. It clumps together and no longer has the pleasant airy texture of the freshly spun floss.

Candy floss remains popular, especially at local fairs, circuses, and amusement parks. It is usually made in pink or light blue, which are essentially its “flavors.” Technically most candy floss doesn’t have additional flavors added and flavors referred to are typically “pink” or “blue.” The predominant taste is sweet sugar since the cotton candy is almost completely sugar with just a little dye added.

Despite the high sugar content, candy floss, especially in moderate amounts, isn’t that high in calories. A typical serving has about 100 calories, less than a 12-ounce (.35 liters) serving of most sodas. Still the food is pure sugar, and larger servings, yield higher calories. Given its components, cotton candy should be consumed rarely, especially since if you’re at a fair or amusement park, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to brush your teeth after eating it.

There are also some concerns about the dye commonly used to produce the pink variety. This is an artificial coloring called tartrazine, which in a 2008 study conducted by a research team at Southampton University in England, was shown to have potentially dangerous effects on children. According to this study, tartrazine may lower intelligence and create greater risk for hyperactivity, but the effects are not fully understood, since it seemed to affect some children more than others.

The amount of tartrazine in cotton candy is negligible, and moreover, most people don’t consume cotton candy on a regular basis. It’s usually a once in a while treat. If you’re concerned about the food coloring, you might want to try to the blue variety, since this dye has not been linked to behavioral problems or potential health hazards.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


My teenage daughter came home very strangely ill after eating pink cotton candy at her school carnival, and that's how I came across this article. Interesting study about tartrazine effects on some kids!


A cousin of mine actually had one of those candy floss machines when we were kids, and she was the absolute envy of the neighborhood.

Of course, it didn't take us long for us to start in on using the candy floss supplies whenever we got over there -- it was almost as good as having your own ice cream maker!

So one day we got the bright idea that it took too long to actually make the candy floss, and that we should just cut to the chase and eat the cotton candy floss sugar straight.

I have never, ever, been so sick as I was that day.

So word of warning kids -- take the thirty seconds to make the candy floss. It's really not worth it to just eat the sugar straight, no matter how appetizing that seems at the time.


What about orange candy floss? That was always my favorite one when I was little. Does it have any scary secret side effects?


I can believe it about pink cotton candy floss causing hyperactivity -- when my daughters went to the fair last week we could hardly keep up with them -- though, to be fair, that could just be the excitement of a kid put up against two tired adults.

Of course I know that the candy floss sugar content is through the roof too, so I'm sure that had a lot to do with it.

Now they're both asking for a candy floss maker for Christmas -- fat chance!

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