As Halloween nears, supermarket and department store aisles are lined with boxes of confectionery and salty treats, perfectly sized for little trick-or-treaters. If your house is already decorated with skeletons and cobwebs and you've spent months planning a costume that will impress the kids who stop at your door, then you're probably keen to beat out the neighbourhood competition by purchasing the most coveted products.
The Halloween treats parents love giving (and kids love getting) are so convenient -- wrapped in snack sized (or 'fun' sized) packages and sold in enormous boxes for a great price -- that you might not think twice about what you're scattering around the neighbourhood. Miniature bags of Cheetos, Doritos, Twizzlers and gummy worms... so tiny, they must be harmless, right?
The first ingredient in the vast majority of Halloween treats is tooth-decaying, obesity-causing sugar, and most provide no nutritional value aside from empty calories. Sure, a miniature chocolate bar won't do much damage, but the other ingredients hiding in the package -- artificial colours and flavours, chemical preservatives, trans fats and others -- might. If you're a conscientious parent concerned about your child's diet, it's safe to say that other parents in your neighbourhood are just as interested in what their children bring home on Halloween night.
Unfortunately, in Canada small packages are exempt from listing ingredients. Unless you do your research or go as far as calling the manufacturer (even small packages must list a telephone number), you may never know which scary chemicals lurk in your children's treat bags. This is especially troublesome for children with food allergies, ADD/ADHD and autism.
The ingredients may not be listed on the individually-wrapped packages, but they are listed on the box. Before buying a mega-box of goodies, have a read. You might be astonished to find some of the most frightening ingredients in the most popular products. For example, dreaded trans fats (listed as partially hydrogenated fat on the label) are found in Ritz crackers and Snickers bars. The notorious flavour enhancer, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one of many, many artificial ingredients in Doritos; and M&Ms are brimming with artificial colours, chemicals suspected to be a reason for hyperactive behaviour in children.
Read the ingredients on a few more boxes, however, and you'll find that not all products contain unsavoury ingredients. Some products, especially plain (unflavoured) potato chips, have 'clean' labels -- meaning, they're free of artificial colours, flavours, and chemical preservatives. You just have to know what you're looking for.
The hands-down favourite candy that kids will dig through their treat bags to find is a chocolate bar. Luckily many candy bars are not as bad as you might think. Some are horrible -- Snickers contains trans fats and M&Ms contain a variety of artificial colours, but most chocolate bars, especially plain chocolate bars, don't contain the scary stuff (unless you're afraid of fat, that is).
Flavoured potato chips and corn chips, including Doritos and Cheetos, often include a host of artificial flavours, many of which include free glutamic acid, a component of MSG and the culprit behind many of the symptoms MSG is known to cause.
Instead, choose plain chips with the simple ingredients, 'potatoes, vegetable oil, and salt.' Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips and Old Dutch Halloween chips are good choices. They are fried, but they won't send your kids into a tailspin.
Colourful candy, from orange-and-black Halloween candy to Twizzlers and Skittles is chock-full of artificial colours, most of them coal-tar derivatives and all of them implicated in causing changes to behaviour or health.
My favourite brand of candy is YummyEarth. They make organic and naturally coloured lollipops, gummy bears, gummy worms, and other delicious candy, and best of all, they're sold in snack size packages for Halloween. Look for them at Whole Foods, Toys-R-Us, HomeSense, Winners, and at health food stores. They are a little more expensive than other candy, but if you're willing to spend the extra money, neighbourhood parents will appreciate it. Reluctant to dole out additional cash for someone else's kids? Buy it for your own kids and swap the artificially-coloured candy your child brings home with the good stuff.
Of course, you can always opt to give out boxes of raisins, granola bars, and trail mix, but your doorstep might not be so popular next Halloween. Not all treats have to be edible. Stop by your local party shop or dollar store to stock up on knick-knacks kids can play with -- stickers, markers, crayons, glow stick bracelets, and trading cards (sports cards or... why not go with Justin Bieber cards?).
This year Halloween falls on a Monday. To all the school teachers who will have to deal with exhausted and frenzied kids on Tuesday morning, I wish you luck.
Happy and safe trick or treating!