Halloween’s dilemma: Candy vs. healthful treats

Dollars to doughnuts, the ghosts and goblins and Angry Birds who show up at your door Monday night will not have their little hearts set on baby carrots or celery sticks.

And statistics show — surprise! — that most won’t have to settle for them either. Candy flies off the shelves at Halloween — about 600 million pounds of it every season, including roughly 90 million pounds of chocolate, according to market researchers at Nielsen Co. The total bill for all these treats will run to $2.3 billion this year, the National Confectioners Assn. estimates.

But with the specter of childhood obesity haunting the land, well-meaning adults face a ghastly dilemma: Is it possible to offer a responsible treat without coming off as an ogre?

Because deciding what treats to hand out on Halloween can be downright tricky, we sought guidance from an array of experts in nutrition, pediatrics and dental health to see how they’re planning to cope. Here’s what they had to say:

Offer “good-for-you” goodies instead of candy. That’s the M.O. favored by Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.


An outspoken advocate of science-based nutrition, Jacobson won the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s CDC Foundation Hero Award in 2010. But on the holiday he refers to as “Junk Food Day,” he knows he’s not considered a hero by neighborhood kids. After all, when they’re out collecting “garbage,” as he puts it, he tries to up the healthfulness of their haul by handing out raisins. “I suspect they eat their candy bars before they eat their raisins, but they don’t throw them back,” he says.

Children will meet a similar fate at the home of Dr. Janet Silverstein, chief of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where they’ll get to choose from a basket of apples, bananas and packages of dried fruit. “I tried toothbrushes before,” she says, “but that didn’t go over too well. I’m not sure the fruit basket goes over very well either, of course.” But it is quite successful in one way: “It keeps the 14-year-olds from coming.”

Forget about food altogether. Up the coast in Augusta, Maine, Dr. Jonathan Shenkin will be eschewing candy as well. Instead, the pediatric dentist will be offering stickers, toothbrushes and sugar-free gum.

In his experience, children “go wild” for stickers, at least until they hit first or second grade. After that, not so much. Sugar-free gum may not be older kids’ ideal Halloween treat either, he acknowledges, but “hey, they’re knocking at a dentist’s door.” And parents, at least, like the toothbrushes.

Sugar-free gum reduces the risk of tooth decay, Shenkin says, because it increases saliva flow. Indeed, studies have shown that chewing sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after eating — especially if it’s sweetened with xylitol — reduces cavities and plaque by up to 60%.

From a dental health perspective, Shenkin says that sugar-free products are “the way to go.” But on the off chance that your munchkins collect some sugary swag, he stresses that they should brush their teeth with a fluoride toothpaste immediately after they eat it. And they should eat it right after a meal.

“Sugar between meals is worse than the same quantity as dessert,” he says, “because every time we consume sugar, the bacteria in our mouth digest it and produce acids which cause cavities.” He also advises that chocolate is better than stickier candies that “sit on teeth for extended periods of time” and are hard to remove even with a toothbrush. But even chocolate “can still cause cavities,” he says.

By the way, if you’re thinking that raisins and dried fruit are sticky too, you’re right. And that does make them a threat for tooth decay. Still, Shenkin prefers them over sticky candies. And they also have an advantage over fresh fruits: Because they’re packaged, parents don’t have to worry so much about tampering.

Hand out just a little candy. By giving small pieces of candy, and just one to a customer, nutrition guru Susan Roberts hopes to provide “a natural brake in the system.” And if every household did the same, kids would “have to walk a good long way to accumulate a lot,” says the director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Human Nutrition Research Laboratory on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

Of course, some of her neighbors may belong to the bigger-is-better school of Halloween thought, and at times, she says, “my kid has come home with what I felt was too much candy.” Then she instituted “parent-share rules.” Also — unbeknown to her daughter — “some of it disappeared overnight.”

Conduct an experiment. Like the gleeful trick-or-treaters who troop up to his door, researcher James Hill sees Halloween as a golden opportunity. For the kids it’s a chance to get their little mitts on as much candy as they can, but for him it’s a chance to see what it would take to entice them to forgo the sweet stuff.

Hill is the executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, which has developed a list of 28 healthier-than-candy Halloween hand-out options. Hill plans to put the eight cheapest ones to the test. These range from Halloween “tattoos” at 2 cents apiece to glow-in-the-dark bouncy balls that cost 16 cents each. Small-sized candy bars will also be available, and he’ll “see how many kids go for candy and how many for alternatives.”

Go into denial. “I kind of wish the holiday would just go away,” says Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It” and, most recently, a widely read piece about the evils of sugar and its role in causing chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. He has signed on as a spokesman for the first annual Sugar Addiction Awareness Day on Oct. 30, which (among other priorities) has set the lofty goal of making Halloween a sugar-free holiday.

But sugary candies will get handed out at his Bay Area home nonetheless. “My wife takes it upon herself to save the children in our neighborhood from my Grinch-who-stole-Halloween characteristics,” he confesses.

And if Taubes had his druthers, what sort of treats would he hand out? “Maybe chocolate with as low a sugar content as the kids would tolerate — although I guess if they took one bite and threw the rest out, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

Chill out — it’s only once a year. Candy crams a lot of calories into a small space, and most of the time Barbara Rolls, a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University in University Park, encourages people to eat foods that do just the opposite. But on Halloween, when she greets 600 or so trick-or-treaters, she lets them reach into a giant mixing bowl and pull out — yes! — the fun-sized candy of their choice.

“It’s a treat, OK?” Rolls says. It’s up to parents to figure out how to handle the candy that kids bring home, she says, but she recommends that they don’t get too uptight about it. Research shows that restricting treats too much only makes them seem more special, feeding kids’ desire all the more.

Michael Pollan will be stepping out of character too. In such books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” the Berkeley professor advises readers to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Still, he says, “our Halloween candy is the usual crap, on the theory that it’s a special occasion. Festal eating once a year — what’s the big deal?”

As a kid, Pollan recalls, he “kept a careful map year to year, crossing out the houses where they gave you an apple or a view of their new kitties — not a good use of precious trick-or-treating time.”