A candy’s shelf life is directly influenced by its ingredients. “For most sugar-based confections, losing moisture or drying out is the main reason,” says Richard W. Hartel, a professor of food engineering. “Find an old box of Peeps or Dots or jelly beans, and you’ll quickly see what that means,” he also says.
Jelly Belly, the major producer of jelly beans with two factories in the U.S., cautions against eating dried-out candies. “If it’s hard to bite down on your beans, you most likely have old jelly beans in your hand,” its website reads. Similar candies with chewy, sugary centers, like gumdrops, also dry out over time, becoming brittle and glassy.
Packaging can help sugar-based candies retain their shelf life. Such candies are often wrapped in plastic to prevent moisture loss, but once you open the package and expose the candies to air, they can dry out within days or weeks.
Chocolate usually comes in foil or opaque paper wrapping to keep out light and moisture. There are several ways chocolate can spoil. “One is fat bloom formation, where the cocoa butter recrystallizes as white spots on the surface,” Hartel says. Especially in the case of milk chocolate, this can make the candy taste rather gross— though all the sugars and preservatives probably mean it won’t make you sick.
Over time, even if protected from light and warmth, chocolate might absorb moisture and consequently won’t have the same viscosity when melted, and might feel gritty on the tongue. The shelf life of chocolate varies based on type.
Dark chocolate will last one to two years in foil if kept in cool, dark, and dry places, while milk and white chocolate will last up to 10 months. The higher milk fat content in white and milk chocolates shorten its shelf life when compared with dark chocolate.
Hard candies essentially have an indefinite shelf life, provided they are stored properly. Items like lollipops, Jolly Ranchers, and other individually wrapped candies do best without exposure to moisture. If such candies do spoil, they’ll appear sticky or grainy as a result of temperature changes or sugar crystallization and may experience changes in flavor.
Marshmallows are a sugar-based confection with a shelf life of roughly six to eight months. By nature, they contain more moisture than many other candies, so depending on how they’re stored, they’ll either lose moisture or become more sticky. They are best stored in dry, cool places or at room temperature.
Caramel and nougats last six months to a year at room temperature and away from heat and light, while candy corn can make it as far as nine months if kept sealed. Soft jelly candies can last up to a year unopened. Once opened, they can be kept in a covered candy dish for six to nine months.
Most candies do have expiration dates, but like most foods, these dates serve more as guidelines for when to consume them. It’s generally fine to eat candy past its expiration date, though the quality and textures do decline after a certain point. Overall, it really just matters what you put in your candy bag that decides the shelf life.