By Julie Starkel, MS, MBA, RD

Halloween is fast approaching, and I bet if you have school-aged children, the subject of costumes and candy has been broached. It’s exciting to dress up and be someone or something from our dreams for a night. We will undoubtedly see the traditional princesses, ghosts, cowboys, and firemen. We will also see current figures like Hannah Montana, Dora the Explorer and maybe even some Obamas (probably dressed by their parents). I recently heard about a girl who dressed up as duct tape. It is a time for creativity.

While all the tricks and treats are going on, some parents also dread the inevitable sugar overload to come in the following days or weeks. In addition to sugar, if we knew more about the ingredients in the candy and the impacts they have, not only on our children’s teeth and waistlines, but also on the environment, we might step back and look for options.

Green Halloween, a non-profit, grassroots community movement to create healthier and more Earth-friendly holidays, provides parents and the community with healthier or non-food treats to tantalize our kids. Halloween is their first target.

To explore this thought a bit more, let’s look at the top selling Halloween candy, some nutrition information, and the impact on health and the environment. Halloween is the number one holiday for candy sales. Sales in the U.S. will near 2.1 billion dollars this year! That is up almost three percent since last year, and there is reason to believe this increase will continue. There is much debate regarding the top five Halloween candies, and Candy Corn is surely one, but for the purposes of this article, I chose the following:

  • Milky Way Classic
  • Snickers
  • Mars Bar
  • PayDay
  • KitKat

Since these candies have similar nutrition profiles, more or less, I picked the Milky Way bar to observe closer. According to the company’s official website, the Classic Milky Way bar, manufactured by Mars, Inc., has 20 ingredients, listed at the end of this article. The top three ingredients are different forms of sugar. The Milky Way also has partially hydrogenated soybean oil, which is a trans fat and soybean oil itself is a pro-inflammatory oil. Pro means ‘causing” inflammation. Trans fats, discussed in another article on the experts page of the Green Halloween website, are not healthy for you. They are fats that are created by humans to simulate natural saturated fats, which are by comparison much healthier for you. It’s best just to avoid trans fats altogether. In fact, as was much publicized, New York City has banned trans fat use in restaurants, and Seattle is considering it. Why give this substance to our children?

Moving on down the long list of ingredients, there are several forms of wheat, which is not harmful for many, but can be a threatening substance for people with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, an underdiagnosed allergy to wheat. Artificial flavors and colors also may pose health concerns. For example, parents with children in the autistic spectrum or with ADD/ADHD have found that eliminating artificial colors has lessened symptoms. Even children not diagnosed with autism or ADD have behavior issues linked to these chemicals. In general, it is unknown what types of effects, short-term or long-term, these artificial colors and flavors have on humans. So many natural colorings are available, such as turmeric for yellow or beets for red, that there is no real reason to knowingly consume or expose our children to additional chemicals. The other ingredients are recognizable, but located at the end of the list, indicating smaller quantities.

Each Fun Size bar has 75 calories, while the full-sized bar has 260. But who eats just one Fun Size bar? Even Mars, Inc. lists two Fun Size bars as one serving size. The label lists 0 g trans fat. We know this is not true because a major ingredient is partially hydrogenated soybean oil, which is a trans fat. How do companies get away with this? The U.S. labeling laws state that if there are less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, food manufacturers may label it as 0 grams. Here’s the catch: If you eat more than two bars, you are starting to accumulate your intake of trans fat. Again, this is a synthesized substance that has negative health effects.

There are 20 grams of sugar in two bars. Just as a comparison, there are 17 grams of natural sugar in a medium pear, plus fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals… a whole lot more nutrition. There are four grams of saturated fat in two Fun Size bars. That is 20% of the recommended amount of saturated fat for an adult. There is one gram of protein, and tiny amounts of calcium and iron.

The impact eating candy has on our health is cumulative. One bar won’t kill you, of course, but over time, a habit of a few per day will impact us or our children in various ways. The first is the most obvious: weight gain. We need to eat only 500 extra calories a day to gain one pound in a week. Doing the math, that’s two regular size Milky Way bars or six and a half Fun Size bars per day. And one pound per week is 52 pounds per year. Sure, kids burn a lot of calories, but if they are getting their calories (energy) from things like candy in place of, say, a pear, they are not getting the nutrients I mentioned above including antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. Candy is empty calories, meaning there are calories but no, or not many, nutrients.

Second, high sugar content foods contribute to dental caries, more commonly called cavities. There is more research recently pointing out that the health of teeth is related to overall health. Third, as any parent knows, some children do not handle sugar well. You have seen the tantrums or crazy energy erupt from a child who has recently consumed a significant quantity of sugar. Another implication of frequent consumption of high sugar containing foods, also called glucose, is a potential future diagnosis of diabetes. When we eat sugar alone, without accompanying it with protein and/or high quality fat, our blood sugar levels spike. This, in turn, causes large amounts of insulin to be released into our blood. Repetition of this process can lead to the “wearing out” of our beta cells, the cells that produce insulin, or to the sensitivity of our body’s cells’ ability to absorb glucose. Balancing your food intake, by including protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates, is important for every meal or snack. Lastly, none of these candies are organic, which means our children are consuming synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

The impact on the environment that this type of food presents, if that’s what you call it, has been well publicized recently. The impacts are many, but I’ll just touch on a few here. Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup come from corn, which is most likely genetically modified. Whatever you believe on that topic, the truth is it is changing our environment toward a future we cannot predict. In addition, the increase in farmland use for planting corn is depleting our soil of nutrients. Corn is relatively low on the nutrient density scale, so its value is limited, other than for corn syrup, livestock feed or ethanol. Yet, because of unsustainable farming practices, our American farmland has been depleted of nutrients, causing farmers to use more and more fertilizers and pesticides to achieve profitable yields. These fertilizers and pesticides run off the farms and into our water ways. The huge algae explosion in the Caribbean is largely a result of the non-organic farming practices in the Midwest, where the bulk of commodity foods such as corn, sugar and other grains are grown. Milk is also an ingredient in these candy bars, and rBGH, or bovine growth hormone, is abundant in our dairy source. The dairy cattle raising practices, with centers in California and Wisconsin, also pollute the environment with potentially toxic substances from the excrement of the cows, not to mention the methane gas released into the air.

Unfortunately, this article has brought you the bad news. However, alternatives are available! Just peruse the Green Halloween website for great ideas for alternatives to conventional candy for Halloween this year. Great fun and delicious flavor is out there in very healthy ways.

Milky Way Classic ingredients: Milk chocolate (sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk, chocolate, lactose, milkfat, soy lecithin, artificial flavor), corn syrup, sugar, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, skim milk, less than 2% milkfat, cocoa powder processed with alkali, lactose, malted barley, wheat flour, salt, egg whites, artificial flavor.

Julie Starkel, MS, MBA, RD is a whole foods Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian with a private practice located in Seattle, Washington. She has a master of science degree in nutrition from Bastyr University and a background of over 10 years in health and fitness. She’s a member of the American Dietetic Association, the Nutrition in Complementary Care dietetic practice group, and has worked in both the traditional and natural medicine arenas in Chicago and Seattle. See her website at www.juliestarkel.com or contact her at julie@juliestarkel.com

Thank you to our 2013
national sponsors

Thank you to our 2013 Partners

Company: optional