What will food cops hand out?

Times Staff Writer

Adults have their days of overindulgence: Thanksgiving, with its groaning board, the boozy free-for-all that for many is New Year’s Eve. Tuesday is a kids’ saturnalia, a night when candy is free for the taking.

But these are scary times for children. Issues of nutrition (saturated fats! empty sugar!) and childhood obesity are in the spotlight. To help parents clean up Halloween a bit, some health groups offer tips: Give juice, raisins, rice cakes, cereal bars -- or even bags of baby carrots. (If you think your landscaping will survive the experiment.)

Curious about what nutrition and dental experts give kids themselves on this night of sanctioned excess, we asked a few.

* Candy: Elisa Zied, registered dietitian and American Dietetic Assn. spokeswoman. “A combination -- mini-chocolates and some lollipops, which are really self-contained and take a long time to eat, and some individually wrapped candies,” she says. “I’ve always given candy out.... I want to keep the fun in Halloween.”

Though she doesn’t go this route, she approves of trail mix, raisins, bars and juice. “Baby carrots are fine -- I know it’s something that my 8-year-old would gobble up. Though it might not be his top choice.”

* Candy: Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I usually go for the least-bad kind of candy I can think of: gum or a little hard candy or lollipop.” These last longer than chocolate. At a party, she’ll serve cupcakes with red-eyeball frosting, and apple slices. “I couldn’t be more dedicated to healthy eating, but I do believe that certain foods play a role in celebrations,” she says.


* Candy and toys: Susan Bowerman, registered dietitian and assistant director at UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition. “I let the kid pick -- I think it’s better if they have a choice,” she says. She avoids peppermint patties because she’ll eat them herself. Sometimes, she says, parents can delude themselves by buying healthier-sounding items. “Let’s face it, a cereal bar is really a big cookie -- it’s just got a different name,” she says.

* Candy and a toothbrush: Dr. Matthew Messina, Cleveland-area dentist and a spokesman for the American Dental Assn. Messina favors chocolate over fat-free gummy worms and jelly beans.

“Chocolate is relatively easy to get off the teeth, it’s not real sticky,” he says -- unlike gummy candies. (Let’s not forget that dentists once used Jujubes to pry crowns out of people’s jaws.) These are often acidic too -- bad news for teeth. Raisins? Granola bars? Brush and floss to remove sticky fruit and grain bits.

* Small toys: Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. “Not food,” he says. “because the food that people tend to hand out is candy, and children get plenty of candy already.” In a 2003 study, he and colleagues offered candy or toys to trick-or-treating children ages 3 to 14 and found the kids were just as likely to pick toys.

He hasn’t done studies on how far treats can be healthified before children balk, “but perhaps you could do that,” he quips. “The outcome variable could be seeing how far you could go without getting your house TP’d.”

* Nuts and chocolate: Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “They might be cashews or almonds or something like that,” he says. Not peanuts, though, because of the issue with allergies. He doesn’t think sugar candy is a better nutritional choice. “That sounds like a little bit of lingering fat phobia,” he says. “Sugar candy has zero nutrition. Chocolate does seem to have some health benefits.”

* Nothing: Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University. But only because no kids come knocking at her Manhattan apartment. “The holiday has become about selling really awful candy to kids,” she says. “I’m not in favor of nutritional purism on holidays. I think some negotiation is reasonable.”

If she had trick-or-treaters today, she’d probably choose Hershey’s Kisses. And OK, she’s a sucker for caramel apples. “Especially ones with the worst red, hard candy on them.”