I work in the food-reform business. I'm supposed to be all about healthy eating, which I typically am, but I'm also a human being who happens to love candy -- the cheaper the better. Nothing makes me happier than neon-orange, ghost-shaped peeps and candy corn. (I know, I know. I have to put on my fake nose and glasses when I eat them.) However, in the spirit of setting a good example for my children, my colleagues and promoting healthier options, here are a few ideas to keep in mind when thinking about what you want to be feeding yourself and your children during the trick-or-treating season.
1) Do the math. I know that math is not a topic one typically associates with Halloween, but some basic food-label decoding skills can go a long way. The U.S.D.A. reports sugar in grams. Why? Because most of us don't know how much a gram is and what you don't know can't help you to make better choices. Here's a good trick. Use this quick conversion to figure out how much sugar you are actually consuming: 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar. It doesn't take a scientist to know that candy has a lot of sugar, but certain candies have a lot more sugar than others. For example, one package of Skittles has 47 grams of sugar -- that's a bit more than 11 teaspoons of sugar! Alternatively, nine Hershey's Kisses with Almonds have 19 grams of sugar (just 4 teaspoons), plus you get some protein, fiber and vitamin E from the almonds.
2) The chocolate and nothing but the chocolate. Hershey's kisses and mini Hershey's bars are a better bet than some of the other brightly colored "fruit"-flavored snacks, or the chocolate filled with lots of other "stuff." While Hershey's is not going to pass muster as a high-quality source of cocoa, it is also not filled to the brim with artificial colors and dyes. Food companies pour upward of 15 million pounds of food dye into processed food each year. Some of the most widely used, like Red #40 and Yellow #5, are known carcinogens and have been linked to hyperactivity in children as well as to increased allergies. If you are going to "Eat the Rainbow," do it with fruit and veggies and skip the Skittles!
3) Scary trans fats. If the whole thrills and chills thing does it for you, be my guest, but don't play around with some of the scariest stuff in town -- trans fats. Trans fat is formed when vegetable oils undergo a chemical process to turn them from a liquid into a solid. Food companies do this to reduce costs, increase shelf life and improve the texture of foods. Consumption of trans fats has been directly linked to heart disease, increased cholesterol levels, obesity and a host of other health problems. Companies know that consumers are beginning to pay more attention to trans fats and labels often claim a product has 0 percent trans fats. The problem is that the U.S.D.A. allows companies to have .05 percent trans fat in a product and still claim it has no trans fat. The only way to know for sure is to look at the label. If you see the words hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated -- it means there is some trans fat. Put it down and back away slowly. Some of the most popular candies with trans fat are: Three Musketeers, Butterfinger, Laffy Taffy and Starburst.
4) Toothless terrors. We think its funny if our kids want to wear mouth pieces or masks that make their teeth look like they are rotting our of their heads, but certain kinds of candies can actually do just that. We know that excess sugar consumption can cause cavities. However, researchers now show that sugar combined with starch can work together even more efficiently to create the bacteria that rots teeth. Certain kinds of candy that increase the acidity in the mouth can do even more damage. Sour candies, suckers and lollipops, along with caramels (because little bits can linger, even after brushing) are some of the worst cavity offenders. Let's face it, candy is a great sugar delivery system, but no need to jack up the dentist bills unduly. Pick candies that do not have an excess of citric or malic acid or lots of caramel.
5) Pretzels and popcorn and peanuts, oh my! Adding a touch of chocolate to any of these food items make them into a special treat. Of course you have to be careful about kids with nut allergies, but buying these items in bulk, drizzling them with some milk (or even better) dark chocolate and putting them in small bags (preferably compostable ones) is a great way to control the amount of sugar kids are getting, provide a relatively healthy, but fun option without lining the already enormous pocket of the biggest candy producers. I realize that this takes a bit more work and might be met with skepticism (or even fear of taking food from strangers) but plenty of parents will appreciate and applaud your efforts. Young kids will like the idea of helping with the activity, too.
Enjoy, be safe and have a happy Halloween.
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