Five myths about candy

What to know be­fore you hand out Hal­loween treats

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Beth Kim­merle Twit­ter: @Sweet­TalkShow Beth Kim­merle is a con­fec­tionery ex­pert and the author of four books on the his­tory of Amer­ica’s candy industry.

1 Nat­u­ral and sugar-free al­ter­na­tives are health­ier than candy.

It’s no se­cret that candy isn’t health food. Makes sense, then, that wellmean­ing 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. For­get 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 hard-to-find num­ber or let­ter se­quences strate­gi­cally placed on 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. 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.

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION US­ING IS­TOCK PHO­TOS

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