Halloween has a problem: Children eat sugar.
In the traditional candy free-for-all, children have the primary goal to get as much as they can, lay it on the carpet, sort it, count it and eat it. But sugar is now a major source of hand wringing, and many parents insist on setting limits.
We eat too much of this empty-calorie ingredient. Americans consume about 6 pounds more sugar in a year than they did in 1970, according to the Department of Agriculture. The obesity epidemic is a buzzword on everyone’s mind. At the same time, we are more inclined than ever to see what we eat as an extension of who we are. That is how Halloween has become a teachable moment. We question ingredients and examine how food is made. As we pass out candies to trick-or-treaters, often with parents watching, some people wonder, should my chocolate be labeled fair trade, and my gummy bears free of synthetic dyes?
Retailers have picked up on the anxiety. Whole Foods Market sells about 15 natural versions of classic Halloween candy such as candy corn without high fructose corn syrup, organic gummy bunnies and organic peanut butter cups.
About four years ago, when the grocer sold just three types of Halloween candy, employees encouraged natural candy makers to create more Halloween-specific sizes and packaging. The target is shoppers who want to be “the hip or happening mom on the block,” says Dwight Richmond, Whole Foods Market’s global grocery purchasing coordinator.
Even when serving up conscience-appeasing candy, most parents still want their children to eat less. “My job as a parent is to teach them about foods that are good for us and foods that are not good for us,” says Kelsey Salley, an endocrinologist who lives in Richmond, Va. Her children, ages 7, 5 and 2, are allowed three candies on Halloween night, “a huge treat for them,” and one piece a day thereafter, Dr. Salley says. To trick-or-treaters she doles out pretzels, erasers or organic gummy treats. “I’m the house that nobody likes,” she says.
Some 81% of parents have rules about how much Halloween candy their children can eat, according to a survey in August conducted by the National Confectioners Association, and 40% say they limit consumption to a certain number of pieces a day until the candy runs out. This year, Americans will spend about $2.5 billion on Halloween candy, says an association spokeswoman.
Parents use subtle and not-so-subtle behavior-modification techniques. Two years ago, Jessica Kennedy, a mother of three in Brooklyn, N.Y., started hyping the “Halloween fairy,” a creature that comes in the night after trick-or-treating to leave behind a toy and take away all but five pieces of the children’s candy. “I hate sugar,” says the 34-year-old, who aims to serve organic and fresh food to her family every day.
Ms. Kennedy tells her older children, 7 and 9, they can opt out of the Halloween fairy’s visit, but she also makes sure to take them on a tempting pre-Halloween trip to a toy store. “They don’t feel like you are controlling them that way,” Ms. Kennedy says. She plans to hand out small containers of homemade green slime to neighborhood trick-or-treaters. The messy, gooey nature of the non-candy boosts its illicit allure, she says.
Ms. Kennedy’s 7-year-old daughter, Jade, says each year she feels “a little torn, because I like candy.”
“Everybody likes candy, but I really like it,” the third-grader adds. Still, she says, “I think I’m going to do the fairy.”
Polly Helm of Richmond, Va., describes the technique she uses with her two 9-year-old sons. “Let them eat until they induce a sugar coma the first day, then remove it from sight and hope they feel too sick to want any more.”
For her sons, the thrill isn’t in actually eating the candy. “It’s about the conquer and the pillage and how much can we hoard the stuff,” says Ms. Helm, a senior project manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Her technique usually works, she says. “I find it in a closet a few months later and throw it out.”
Stephen Daniels, chairman of the pediatrics department at the University of Colorado, says there is some research involving children that shows “foods that are forbidden actually become more attractive.”
Candy doesn’t need to be “demonized in and of itself,” Dr. Daniels says. Celebrate a couple of days, he says, then get candy out of the house so it doesn’t become a daily part of children’s lives and form a bad habit. “What I worry about is, candy once a day for seven days becomes two weeks.”