No one is quite sure about the origin of the jelly bean or why it is so closely associated with Easter, but the candy is a favorite around the world and it has become inextricably associated with the holiday. Indeed, those who keep track of such things report that about 16 billion jelly beans -- enough to circle the globe more than three times if they were laid end to end -- are manufactured in the United States for Easter. Easter. The candy is so popular, in fact, that it now has its own celebration -- April 22 is National Jelly Bean Day.
Food and confectionery historians generally agree that the modern jelly ban is probably a descendant of Turkish Delight, a sweet that was popular in biblical times, or Jordan Almonds, which became popular in 17th century Europe. The tie to Easter is easier to explain. The candies are shaped like eggs, a universal symbol of the day. In some places, in fact, the candies are called jelly eggs.
Whatever their origin and whether they are called beans or eggs, the jelly candies have a rich history. They're made by a time-consuming process called "panning," which creates a hard outer shell while leaving a softer middle. Depending on manufacturer and other variables, it takes between a week and three weeks to manufacture the candies. Millions of consumers, no doubt, will say the finished product is worth the wait.
The candy was probably first made in America by Boston candy maker William Schrafft, who ran advertisements urging people to send jelly beans to Union soldiers during the Civil War. Popularity of the candy continued to grow after the war. By the early 20th century, they had become a staple at the nation's stores. They were the first candy, in fact, to be sold by weight rather than piece.
Sales continue unabated in the 21st century. The standard jelly bean mixture still contains the traditional eight flavor assortment -- cherry, orange, lemon, lime, grape, black licorice, lemonade and strawberry. Modern riffs abound on the old standards; contemporary offerings include relatives of old favorites like tangerine and the totally unexpected like caviar. In the jelly bean world, it seems, there is a flavor for just about every taste.
Kids probably consume more than a fair share of the nation's supply of jelly beans, especially at Easter. Favorites of the season, according to surveys, are cherry, strawberry, grape, lime and blueberry. The candy is an adult favorite, too. They were President Ronald Reagan's favorite -- he used them to help him quit smoking -- and the morsels traveled to space on the space shuttle in 1983.
There is a cost -- other than price -- associated with jelly beans. A serving, pegged at about 35 beans or so depending on size -- contains about 130 calories and 37 grams of sugar. Problem is, just about no one can limit themselves to a single serving at Easter or any other time of the year.