by Hannah Meier
Dressing up, carving pumpkins, ringing doorbells, staying up late, gorging on candy. Halloween traditions are well-beloved in the United States, and reminisced upon fondly by even the most educated nutrition students in the Boston area. But with sugar in the spotlight of contemporary public health interventions, is it time to reconsider our chocolate-coated hallows ‘eve habit?
I liked to sort my candy by type, color, and preference. Each Halloween, I would make my rounds to every house with lights on in my suburban Minnesota neighborhood. I’d ring countless doorbells and gleefully chant, “trick or treat!” alongside my costumed friends, while grown-ups scooped candy by the handful into our open pillowcases. I would relish the end of the night, coming home and dumping the pounds of fresh candy onto a wide space of open floor, sorting the Milk Duds (a personal favorite) into their own pile and relegating Now & Laters, Licorice and Butterfingers into the pile of not-so-greats that I’d probably try to trade for more Milk Duds from my brother later.
For me, candy was a given on Halloween. Sure, there were houses that we’d visit that would hand out fruit snacks or granola bars, and I usually ended up with at least one toothbrush. But these “treats” held hardly as much excitement. My parents allowed my brother and I to keep all our candy, but we were normally held to 2-3 pieces as treats per day, max.
Fast forward 20 or so years, and I not only survived 10 years of tick-or-treating in good health, I’m now in a position of relative influence in the world of nutrition. I’ve learned enough about food to know that candy provides little more to our bodies’ cells than some quick energy and easy calories. Some would argue there are properties within candy, like added sugar, that are harmful to our bodies. I would argue that most people have nothing to worry about if candy is left as a once-in-a-while food (even a once-a-day treat). Looking at the bigger picture of overall diet is more telling. Even though most candy contains negligible amounts of micronutrients, will our bodies really know whether we ate two Snickers® fun size® bars or a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Larabar®, give or take a few grams of fiber? I do not have an answer to that question, but I can tell you, without a doubt, that my mother would not have payed twice the price for pulverized cashews and dates.
Now, I’m not anti-Larabar®, and recognize that if we were to compare ingredient lists, one would be a clear winner. Of course, I’m not comparing a Snickers® bar to an apple, a bag of trail mix, or popcorn—all options that would clearly be less-processed, more wholesome snacks. I’m comparing a Snickers® bar to a reasonable cousin—one that also provides the satisfaction of unwrapping a crinkly wrapper—yet happens to be expensive and out of reach for most. It’s worth taking a step back and considering whether the battle to promote “healthier” Halloween treats really holds up – we shouldn’t be relying on candy or snack bars like Larabar® for micronutrients, anyway.
Still, it’s hard to find the Halloween candy tradition benign when considering our current food environment, which makes eating large portions of highly processed foods in a fairly mindless way all too convenient and affordable every day. Holiday traditions put a spotlight on food industry favorites, and Halloween is the king of them all. Unlike food traditions surrounding holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah, Halloween is all about the candy.
Trick-or-treating and candy-giving on Halloween rolled out in the United States as a fully-fledged tradition in the 1950s, alongside Wonderbread® and CocaCola®. Packaged candy was cemented as a Halloween staple during the 70’s when folks feared razor blades in apples, Samira Kawash suggests in a 2010 article in The Atlantic. Since then, Americans have taken hold of the sugar habit, purchasing upwards of 600 million pounds of candy a year for Halloween, and 90 million pounds of chocolate during the week of Halloween alone according to a Neilsen report from 2009. That’s about one pound and 3.2 ounces of chocolate per child in the United States purchased in one week.
Talk about added sugar.
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, along with proposed updates to the FDA Nutrition Facts Panel, pinpoint 50 grams of added sugar as the suggested daily intake for an average adult based on a 2000 Calorie diet pattern. One pound and 3.2 ounces of milk chocolate contains about 543 grams of sugar, which averages out to over 75 grams of sugar per day if consumed in one week. And that’s just chocolate—add in sugar from other foods like yogurt, baked goods, sauces and dressings, and the scales are tipped firmly in the direction of “excess.”
So, what are we supposed to do about it?
According to an informal survey of Friedman students, a majority (64%) believe that handing out Halloween candy neither helps nor hurts public health nutrition policy, and only 55% do not believe it is our responsibility as nutrition professionals to shift our current candy-centric Halloween culture.
“Holidays are unique and have anticipated traditions that vary by family and culture,” one Friedman student responded. America just happens to have a love affair with sugar on Halloween.
But of course, Halloween candy is not the only thing contributing to chronic disease. Another student argued, “Blaming candy is like saying if we want to prevent house fires we should outlaw matches.”
Moderation was a signature theme of survey responses. “Every holiday doesn’t require candy and sweets, but it provides a good opportunity to discuss with children the importance of moderation and sharing,” one student suggested.
While I agree that moderation is a key message, and that foods like candy (or ice cream, or brownies) can indeed be incorporated into an overall health-promoting diet when approached without guilt or stress, does fixating on treats at holidays like Halloween (and Christmas, and Easter, and Valentine’s Day) really send that message? Would we be so obsessed with candy on Halloween if we weren’t constantly trying to avoid it the rest of the year?
To help make your decision—will you or won’t you participate in passing out candy to kids this Halloween?—let’s refer to my favorite decision-making tool: the Pros vs. Cons list.
|Candy is cheap, usually on sale, and comes in many varieties||Look at the ingredients list… if you dare|
|But chocolate has antioxidants, right?||Have you ever babysat a kid who ate candy for dinner?|
|Dentists need more business, it’s good for the economy.||Candy may be cheap, but fillings are expensive.|
|More likely to be viewed as a “cool house” for handing out candy.||If no one comes to your door, you can wear pajamas and go to bed early.|
While over 95% of Friedman students surveyed enjoy eating candy on Halloween, only 53% of them plan to hand out sweet treats to costumed kiddos this year. Most who aren’t participating in the tradition reported not having Trick-or-Treaters stepping up to their doors. Others said they would be handing out granola bars, nuts (allergies are a whole other topic worth considering on Halloween), or non-food items like stickers.
Most folks passing out candy are going with fun size bars or “whatever’s cheapest.” My building is one that will likely not be visited by young tricksters looking for treats, but if it were, I’d pick up a big bag of fun size pretzel M&Ms® (because they offer the best of both worlds) and ask every kid their name. Like one insightful second-year student added “Halloween is a great opportunity to get to know neighbors and give personal attention to your community.”
Thanks to all the Friedman students and alumni who filled out the unofficial survey and offered thoughtful and creative responses! It’s clear we can improve our Halloween traditions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do away with candy altogether.
*Statistics based on a voluntary Facebook-linked google survey of 45 Friedman students and alumni in September, 2107
Hannah Meier is a registered dietitian, second-year Nutrition Communications student, foodie, and festivity nerd. She believes in the power of food as both an instrument for health and community, and strives to make nourishing options as accessible and convenient as possible for all. You can find her on Instagram @abalancedpaceRD and Twitter @hannahrosemeier.