The humble M&M candy is an icon: Bite-sized chocolates, protected by a crunchy candy shell, making for a mess-free snacking experience. Since 1941, the M&M has been one of the most instantly identifiable American candies, endlessly adaptable and versatile no matter how or where you’re consuming them. Sneak a cheap box into the movie theater to avoid concession pricing? Sure. Mix them with popcorn? Folks swear by it. Blend them up into ice cream? It’s been one of the most popular Dairy Queen Blizzard flavors for decades. M&M’s get around.
In recent years, though, it’s become far less simple to immediately picture what someone means when they say “M&M’s,” because the sheer variety of flavors available for the candies has exploded. There have been so many seasonal releases and one-offs, kooky promotions and marketing stunts, that it’s hard to even say how many M&M flavors actually exist!
The answer: As of this moment, there are 13 regularly available M&M’s varieties that one can buy directly through the Mars, Inc. website. And so, with Halloween on the horizon–always the M&M’s biggest time to shine–this seemed like the ideal moment to taste and rank the entire field. Included are the following: Milk chocolate (plain), peanut, dark chocolate, dark chocolate peanut, peanut butter, almond, pretzel, crunchy cookie, minis, fudge brownie, caramel, s’mores, and caramel cold brew. And here they are, ranked from worst to best.
13. Caramel Cold Brew M&M’s
The regular Caramel M&M’s are a favorite, so the idea of simply infusing that caramel with coffee flavoring is by no means a bad one. This is obviously meant to evoke a heavily sugared, Starbucks-style latte, but it’s a case where the competing flavors end up working against each other rather than in harmony. There are moments where the coffee flavor shines through in a great way, but then it veers off in strange directions. There are flashes of a weird fruitiness on the palate, almost banana-like in a strange and artificial way. Very saccharine overall, it’s among the sweetest of all the M&M’s variants. You can see precisely what they were going for, but this just feels like it went one flavor too deep down the rabbit hole. It’s the most discordant of the M&M’s we tasted.
12. Fudge Brownie M&M’s
If the Caramel Cold Brew M&M’s are guilty of overcomplicating this formula, then the Fudge Brownie M&M’s are perhaps something akin to the opposite–they’re not quite a bold enough concept to really stand out. After all, the interior of an M&M has always been chocolate, so these come down to how you’re quantifying its “brownie” element.
Texturally, these are actually pretty nice. The brownie bit at the core of each candy is pleasantly chewy, with a flavor that is a little nutty or malty in addition to the cocoa. It’s not unpleasant, but the effect is unfortunately very flat and samey–there’s not a clear enough contrast between the classic milk chocolate center and part of it that represents “brownie,” when it comes to flavor. If what you want is just chocolate on chocolate, that’s fine, but overall these have a forgettable air to them.
11. M&M’s Minis
M&M’s Minis are meant to be nothing more than the classic plain M&M, shrunk down to an even smaller size … a slightly pointless endeavor, given that the candies are already bite sized. But who cares–the M&M Mini is obviously fun for kids, and the little tubes they classically come in make them even more portable than other M&M bags. Personally, I always associate the Minis with the McDonald’s McFlurry, which used them rather than the full-sized candies.
Here’s the thing, though: The Minis, though pleasant, don’t actually taste quite the same as the classic Milk Chocolate M&M’s. And it’s not because they have a different coating or chocolate: It’s because the ratio of chocolate to coating has gotten out of balance with the change in size. These really have a miniscule amount of chocolate in them, which diverts attention in the direction of the ultra-sweet candy coating. And really, is that anyone’s favorite part of the M&M? At the end of the day, these are mostly a gimmick for the kids.
10. Peanut M&M’s
Alright, now we’re going to piss some people off. The Peanut M&M is of course an icon, the original expansion flavor, joining Milk Chocolate in 1954. And it makes sense, as peanut and chocolate flavors are a great combination. The problem is that they really don’t come together in a satisfying way in the context of a Peanut M&M.
And I say that as someone who loves peanuts! Half the fun of attending a baseball game for me is crunching on roasted, salted peanuts in the shell. But I’ve never had a less inspiring peanut than the ones found in regular Peanut M&M’s. These are unpleasantly dry and taste almost burnt at times, with a somewhat mealy texture. They’re lacking the impression of salt you’re getting on most other roasted peanuts, and the nut occupies the majority of each large candy, which doesn’t help. The overall effect is just more bland than it should be, lacking the richness that should be present in a chocolate-covered nut. These simply feel like they could be significantly better and more exciting if the peanuts themselves were more flavorful. Thankfully, there are other nutty M&M’s that are better executed.
9. Dark Chocolate Peanut M&M’s
Everything we said above about the regular Peanut M&M’s also applies here, albeit with a coating of dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate. That more assertive chocolate presence helps to take the attention away somewhat from the uninspiring peanuts that are at the core of each of these candies, but it doesn’t do enough to raise them any higher in the rankings. They’re marginally better.
8. Campfire S’mores M&M’s
Looking at the package for this new “Campfire S’more” flavor of M&M, I was fully prepared to be grossed out by the aggressive artificiality of trying to recreate a s’more–graham cracker, toasted marshmallow and chocolate–by simply using milk chocolate and flavored white chocolate inside a candy shell. Let’s just say that I have a healthy mistrust of a company attempting to make white chocolate somehow taste like graham cracker or marshmallow. It’s impossible to disguise the inherent artificiality of this endeavor.
And then they just went ahead and succeeded, and now I don’t know what to make of myself. Lord have mercy, these actually do taste quite a bit like s’mores. There’s a distinct marshmallow flavor that is reminiscent almost of the crunchy little marshmallows you’d find in a bowl of Lucky Charms, combined with a subtle smokiness that keeps them from reading as too one-dimensional. The whole effect is quite sweet and certainly a little bit artificial, but it never becomes distractingly uncanny. Which is a pretty big success, in an M&M flavor this ambitious! All in all, these are decidedly better than I was expecting them to be.
7. Dark Chocolate M&M’s
These ones, more than most, come down on some level to a matter of taste. Overall, I am probably more of a dark chocolate than milk chocolate fan–I love chocolate in general, and it’s rarely bold or intense enough for me. With that said, I’m not sure I would turn to these Dark Chocolate M&M’s quite as often as the Milk Chocolate M&M originals.
The first time you taste these, it’s a bit of a revelation. The chocolate is far richer, bolder and more soulful than the original milk chocolate centers. The cocoa intensity builds up quickly, though, moving into more of a bittersweet direction, and as you keep eating them the palate starts to feel a little overwhelmed. If you’re like me, you perhaps eat intense dark chocolate in very small quantities, whereas eating M&M’s invites you to eat whole handfuls at a time. The result is a more strongly flavored experience where I’m not sure I would want to eat my way through an entire bag of these in a movie theater. I do kind of want to try chopping them up and sprinkling on vanilla ice cream, though …
Regardless, this is pretty subjective stuff. Your threshold for dark chocolate enjoyment will probably determine if you prefer these, or the classic M&M’s overall.
6. Pretzel M&M’s
Few M&M varieties have made such a splash when they arrived on the scene (in 2010) as Pretzel M&M’s, though at the time I didn’t quite think they could live up to the hype. Perhaps I was still in mourning for the “Crispy” M&M, which was my preferred crunchy version of the candy, and which has subsequently been through several rebirths. Regardless, revisiting the Pretzel M&M now, I’m finding a lot to like.
There are two main draws to the Pretzel M&M: A satisfying crunch, and a balance between salty and sweet flavors. It delivers on both, though I still think the pretzel core could be a bit more aggressively seasoned. What I wish this one had more of was a balance between pretzel and chocolate, as the chocolate layer seems particularly thin, meaning it can’t really fully compete with the pretzel. This leads the overall impression to be particularly dry and thirst-raising–you basically need a glass of water with you, eating Pretzel M&M’s. Overall, though, the crunch here is very enticing.
5. Milk Chocolate M&M’s
AKA, “plain M&M’s.” This is the milk chocolate original that started it all, boasting that it would “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” I would ask if anyone actually consumed M&M’s in this strange way–by holding them in your mouth and letting them melt, rather than just biting down–if I didn’t have vivid memories of myself as a child, doing exactly that. So I suppose there are likely other freaks like myself out there.
What is there to say about these candies? God only knows how many bags I consumed on various Halloweens of my youth. They’re pleasantly crisp, being equally satisfying to bite down and crunch on, or melt on the tongue. Their uniform smoothness somehow adds to the appeal. And they feature a milk chocolate flavor that a lot of Americans probably think of as a de facto chocolate essence for widely available candies. They’re a classic; effortless to eat handful by handful. You open a bag, and it disappears. They’re a great American candy.
4. Almond M&M’s
It’s funny how rarely you seem to see Almond M&M’s in the wild, despite the fact that they’ve been a permanent part of the product lineup since the late 1980s. It seems as if they’ve always just sort of existed in the shadow of the Peanut M&M, which is a shame, because these are easily the superior nut-based M&M candy.
The Almond M&M has a more satisfying, dramatic crunch right off the bat than the more waxy, soft Peanut M&M, making them an easy winner of the textural head-to-head matchup. But at the same time, they also have far more of a buttery, praline-esque nuttiness to them than the Peanut, and the almond in the center of each one feels more like a treat than a missed opportunity. Each of these feels quite substantial, actually–they’re a snack you eat one at a time to enjoy the crunch of each. If I learned one thing of merit while doing this tasting, it’s that the Almond M&M needs more of a spotlight.
3. Caramel M&M’s
The most decadent M&M, bar none. Caramel M&M’s are like a world unto themselves, as each one of these large spheres is absolutely loaded with caramel. Thankfully, they’ve maintained just the right texture for the job, being pleasantly chewy without ever getting stuck to your teeth. They likewise have just enough milk chocolate, but the caramel is undoubtedly the star of the show here.
Like the Almond M&M’s, these have a certain heft to them, making for a snack that you tend to eat one at a time. There’s a slight saltiness that makes them mouth-watering, and like the Pretzel M&M’s you may find that a drink is required. Overall, though, you really don’t need all that many of these at a time to be satisfying–just a handful might be enough, because each one is very rich. I will grant that some M&M fans might consider these to deviate too far from the formula, essentially not seeing them as M&M’s at all, but in my eyes these are extremely satisfying.
2. Crunchy Cookie M&M’s
This is a product with a bit of a weird journey behind it. Conceptually, there’s no missing that these are the modern scion of what the world was first introduced to as Crispy M&M’s back in 1999. Those candies were basically a standard, slightly larger (and unevenly shaped) M&M with a center of crisped rice, sort of similar to the crisp rice nuggets you would find in a Nestle Crunch bar. They were phased out by the late 2000s, seemingly making way for the likes of Pretzel M&M’s, but many fans still wanted Crispy M&M’s back. This wish was granted in the mid-2010s when Crispy M&M’s made a return, but that seemed to be short-lived. However, after being discontinued again, suddenly Crunchy Cookie M&M’s started showing up on store shelves. The obvious question: Are these Crispy M&M’s under a new name with better marketing cache? Or an entirely new product concept?
The reality is a little of column A, and a little of column B. Texturally, these are almost spot-on replicas of the former Crispy M&M’s, although they’re now significantly smaller. In terms of flavor, though, they have evolved to more accurately channel the concept of chocolate chip cookies, having a bit more toasty, vanilla-like wafer flavor to them.
It all works beautifully, if you ask me. These are among the most addictive and easy to eat M&M’s varieties, being light and airy, consumable en masse. That sort of makes them the conceptual opposite to the Caramel M&M’s–they don’t pack the maximum decadence into each piece of candy, but are instead addictively crispy and satisfying. They’re like the Buncha Crunch of the M&M world, the easiest to eat an entire bag and end up wondering where they all went.
1. Peanut Butter M&M’s
Peanut Butter M&M’s were actually one of the very first brand spin-offs for M&M’s, arriving in the early 1990s, and they’ve been a stalwart ever since. It is telling that they’re the third flavor included in the brand’s core variety pack, alongside Milk Chocolate M&M’s and Peanut M&M’s–it seems to say that Peanut Butter is even more of a flagship flavor than Almond, despite arriving slightly later.
In terms of flavor and texture, these candies deliver everything that you wish you were getting in the standard Peanut M&M. They’re delightfully sweet, creamy and nutty, with a perfectly smooth peanut butter texture that is never sticky or overly chewy. The chocolate pairs beautifully with hints of a brown butter-like nutty richness. They’re quite decadent–I’m sure some will say these are too sweet–but highly addictive at the same time. As soon as you start eating these, it’s nearly impossible to stop. If only each bag contained more of them!
Now, who’s ready for Halloween candy season?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink, food and film writing.