From conversation hearts on Valentine’s Day to candy canes at Christmas, sweet treats are a big part of every major holiday, and none more so than Halloween. Maybe because it’s associated with such controversial topics as nutrition and devilish holidays, candy is something we have a lot of thoughts about, many of them wrong (or paranoid: poisoned sweets?). Let’s brush off the sugarcoating on five other myths.
1. Natural and sugar-free alternatives are healthier than candy.
It’s no secret that candy isn’t health food. Makes sense, then, that well-meaning adults are often looking for something else to hand out to trick-or-treaters. The Internet is full of healthy suggestions to replace all those Butterfingers, with “natural” snack bars, apples and sugar-free alternatives topping the lists.
Those snack bars go by many names (protein bars, granola bars, energy bars, nutrition bars), but no matter how they’re marketed, they can have more sugar and calories than their candy bar kin. Their wholesome chia, oats, fruit, flax and nuts are often bound with corn syrup, rice syrup, agave or other hidden sweeteners, not to mention the chocolate coatings, yogurt chips and superfruits that have been plumped up with sugar.
A chocolate-dipped granola bar from Target’s Market Pantry line contains 15 grams of sugar and 140 calories. That’s better than a full-size Snickers bar (250 calories and 27 grams of sugar) but almost double the numbers for a Fun Size Snickers (8.5 grams of sugar, 80 calories), which is the more likely size to be handed out to trick-or-treaters. Forgot the apples, too: A medium-size one packs 19 grams of sugar.
And those sugar-free candies? Just read the reviews for sugar-free gummy bears, made with sugar alcohols. Aside from unpleasant aftertastes, sugar alcohols can have adverse gastro-effects, causing intestinal pain and diarrhea. Sugar-free candy labels don’t always carry warnings about these potential laxative effects.
As with any treat, don’t rely on the package’s marketing message. Take a look at the nutritional label and make sure that alternative bar isn’t meant to serve a family of five. Or even better, grab a real candy bar.
2. Old candy should be thrown out.
I once visited a call center for a large candy company and was mesmerized by a Sudoku-like poster on the wall titled “How to Read Our Date Codes” — those number or letter sequences strategically placed on hard-to-find wrapper seams that signal when a candy was produced. There’s no standard sell-by date for candy; the confectionery industry uses a variety of practices. The codes don’t tell customers much, which probably explains the regular advice to toss old candy. Better safe than sorry.
But eating an old Charleston Chew is very unlikely to hurt you. Typically, candy is cooked to high temperatures and lacks the moisture of fresh foods. Microbiologically, little moisture means little chance of spoiling. If a confectionery piece contains more than cooked sugar and has added fats from butter, nuts or chocolate, or contains an egg product (as in nougat or marshmallow), then its shelf life shortens. Still, nuts won’t go rancid for about a year. As Slate points out, the greater danger in eating a very old, brittle candy bar is probably to your teeth, not your digestive system.
3. Dark chocolate is good for you.
In the past few years, numerous outlets have reported the health benefits of chocolate. From every single women’s magazine to the Mayo Clinic, the news that dark chocolate is good for you has made headlines. Weight Watchers devotes an entire Web page to explaining “Why Chocolate is Good for You.”
Here’s what these stories don’t always mention. Chocolate is indeed from a plant and (like red wine) has some antioxidant benefits, but not when it’s highly processed and loaded up with sugar or milk products. To get any real benefits, you need to eat powdered, unsweetened raw cocoa or even cacao nibs, the heart of the cacao bean.
If eating raw chocolate brings back bad memories of sneaking into the kitchen cabinet as a kid and accidentally biting into unsweetened Baker’s chocolate, then you may have been tempted by recent headlines to eat vast amounts of chocolate and lose lots of weight . But the “chocolate diet” story was actually concocted by science journalist John Bohannon to expose how quickly and easily bad nutrition science is disseminated in the media.
The takeaway about chocolate health claims is this: Read the fine print. To get optimum benefits from any superfoods, go for the types that are less processed and closer to pure plant form.
4. Big candy brands use a uniform recipe to keep the flavors consistent.
Ask marketing experts, and they’ll tell you that consistency is a pillar for building and maintaining a consumer brand, which is maybe why travelers abroad looking for a sweet taste of home are often surprised, or even outraged, to find “imposters” inside familiar labels.
But first-to-market strategies and regional differences in ingredients make producing consistent candy (while also trying to expand globally) challenging, and it’s quite common for products to differ from country to country. Take a look at a Kit Kat from Europe and then inspect one from the United States. The ingredient lists aren’t the only things that are different; the manufacturers differ, too. Sometimes, to bring a product to a new market, a company relies on long-term licensing deals allowing another company, even a competitor, to manufacture the confectionery item. Hershey’s produces Cadbury chocolate in the United States; the first ingredient on the label is chocolate, whereas milk tops the list on the British-made bars.
The standard of identity for chocolate itself varies from country to country, so it tastes different depending on locale. In Britain, chocolate may be made with up to 5 percent vegetable oil, while the United States requires anything labeled as chocolate (not “chocolatey” or “chocolate flavor”) to contain cocoa butter, the natural fat found in the cacao bean. This may be one of the few instances where a gold standard of identity was determined in the United States.
So while consistency and quality are basic brand goals, even the biggest candy companies have regionalized recipes. For your safety, please do not use this information to explain to a Brit why his inferior Cadbury bar tastes better stateside.
5. Halloween was invented by candy companies.
In the now-classic Disney film “Hocus Pocus,” a teenage transplant to Salem, Mass., declares that everyone knows “Halloween was invented by the candy companies.” And it’s true that the holiday has become dramatically more commercial than it used to be, partly because of the potential that big manufacturers began to glimpse in the 1950s — 157 million Americans celebrate it, and together we shell out nearly $7 billion for decorations, costumes and, of course, candy.
I have never met a candy company that was anti-Halloween, but today’s trick-or treating is based on a tradition that dates to well before the invention of Fun Size M&Ms and Welch’s Fruit Snacks. Halloween has roots in a centuries-old Celtic harvest festival during which spirits were thanked for fall’s bounty. Originally called Samhain, that ritual evolved into All Souls’ Day, when families would hand out “soul cakes” or sweetened breads to the poor in exchange for prayers for deceased relatives.
By the 1950s, popularized by European immigrants, Oct. 31 had become an Americanized blend of fall harvest festival, recognition of the dead through scary costumes and, naturally, pillowcases filled with delicious candy. Do the companies profit? Of course. Did they manufacture a holiday to push their wares? Don’t give them so much credit.