Peeps, an Iconic Easter Treat

The fascination and history of the world
famous marshmallow Easter candy

The Easter holiday is here, and if you're like the majority of Americans, you’ll probably purchase some candy for the occasion. That stash ranging from Jelly Beans to Cadbury Creme Eggs will also likely include the neon-sugar-coated hallmark of the season: Peeps.

But while their blobby shapes and bright colors are easily recognizable, their backstory might not be so familiar, or as straightforward as you’d think. In their traditional form, Peeps are shaped like baby chickens and made of a soft marshmallow rolled in colored sugar, with eyes made of edible wax.

They are typically sold in packs of five conjoined marshmallows. One serving of Peeps (five pieces) contains 140 calories, no fat, and 34 grams of sugar, which makes sense since their two main ingredients are sugar and corn syrup. Peeps also contain gelatin, which makes them unsuitable for vegans.

Peeps are manufactured by the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Just Born Candy Company. The candy company also manufactures other popular items like Mike & Ikes and Hot Tamales, but Peeps are their most successful trademark.

According to Just Born's company history, founder Sam Born is to thank for several confectionary feats we now take for granted, including producing tasty chocolate sprinkles, as well as that type of chocolate sauce that hardens into a crunchy shell when it hits ice cream. He also invented a machine to put sticks into lollipops.

In 1953, Just Born bought the Rodda candy company, which was based in nearby Lancaster and produced jelly beans as well as a line of handmade, chick-shaped marshmallows. Born's son Bob Born figured out how to mechanize the marshmallow creation process, which shortened the manufacturing time from nearly 27 hours to six minutes. Bob also ditched the wings that used to be piped onto each Peep, which further streamlined the process.

Much like that other tooth-achingly sweet seasonal treat candy corn, Peeps have expanded beyond their original limited availability to become a year-round sweet. They come in different colors (blue, pink, lavender), flavors (cotton candy, gingerbread, "lemon delight," chocolate-covered, candy cane), and various shapes. Peeps bunnies were introduced in the 1980s, and now the line includes hearts, pumpkins, minions, and more.

But the original yellow chicks (whose flavor is simply "sugar") are still the most popular, and the candy is still most commonly associated with Easter. It’s estimated that 1.5 billion Peeps are eaten every Easter.

Still, Peeps are rather divisive. While they have their die-hard fans, many others devote an astonishing amount of energy to railing against them. Take, for instance, the 2012 Guardian article "Sorry, but Peeps are disgusting," or the Facebook groups dedicated to Peep hate.

Peeps are as versatile as their flavor is one-note. If you’re a Peep purist, you can just eat them straight from the package — either fresh or stale and slightly crunchy, as some people prefer. Matthew Pye, Just Born's VP of trade relations and corporate affairs, said that 70 to 75 percent of people prefer "fresh" Peeps, which still leaves a sizable portion of Peep eaters who opt to consume them on the crunchier side of the sell-by date. If you're of legal drinking age, you could pair them with wine or beer.

If you want to get creative, Peeps-centric recipes abound, from the relatively innocuous Peeps Krispies Treats, to the straight-up revolting Peepza -literally just Peeps on a pizza, and the party popular Peepshi, a Willy Wonka fevered dream wherein stylish and colorful sushi is constructed from Peeps!

But if you'd rather not eat them at all, you can still experiment with Peeps in the name of science. One time-honored tradition is to put them in the microwave to see what happens. (Spoiler alert: They get big. Like, really big.) This practice has also led to the exotic sport known as Peep jousting:

In 1999, Emory University researchers Gary Falcon and James Zimring performed perhaps the most exhaustive Peeps testing in human history, exploring the candies' durability in the face of a variety of substances. According to the Emory Report:

To test Peep solubility, they began with simple tap water, then moved on to boiling water, then to acetone, sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide, but were left dumbfounded by Peeps' apparent invulnerability to each.

Then they tried Phenol, a protein-dissolving solvent lethal to humans in amounts as small as a single gram. Peeps proved mortal to such a substance -well, almost. One hour after plunging an unfortunate Peep into its grisly demise, all that remained in the beaker was a pair of brown carnauba wax eyes floating in a purple Phenol soup.

If you're more of a right-brained soul, you might consider using the confections to create an artistic masterpiece. In 2006, the Washington Post launched an annual "Peep Show" diorama contest, asking entrants to create a 3D scene in which all the characters are Peeps. The contest sometimes drew several hundred participants, whose submissions ranged from a Peep van Gogh to a Peepified scene from the movie ‘Up’.

The competition was such a cult favorite that when in 2017 the Post decided to discontinue it, the fine folks at Washington City Paper took it upon themselves to keep the tradition going. But the Post wasn't even the first newspaper to hold a Peeps contest. That honor goes to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, whose staff writer Richard Chin dreamed up the competition in 2004.

In a less artful contest, in 2016 Maryland’s National Harbor hosted the first World Peeps Eating Championship. The winner, Matt Stonie of San Jose, took home $3,500 for consuming an impressive (or disturbing) 200 Peeps in five minutes.

Things have soured a bit for the sugary candy lately. In recent years, Peep-maker Just Born has been mired in a sticky legal battle with its union workforce over the company’s longtime pension plan. The dispute escalated with union workers going on strike while adopting the utterly perfect chant, “No Justice, no Peeps!” The strike came to a messy end four weeks later after several workers crossed the picket line and the rest eventually went back to work for fear of losing their jobs.

The Easter holiday wouldn’t be the same without Peeps being offered as a sugary, tasty treat. So where do Peeps fall in the Easter candy hierarchy? A ‘Food & Wine’ ranking put Peeps in the top spot above all other drugstore Easter candy. Have a wonderful Easter and enjoy your Peeps!