Consider plucking these unhealthy treats out of your child's plastic pumpkin.
Of course you don't want to take candy completely out of the Halloween equation—what fun would that be for your child?—but you may want to keep your costumed cutie away from treats that are truly horrible for her health. We've talked to nutritionists and dentists to reveal the 10 most cavity-causing, artery-clogging culprits, including some that only hit shelves for this haunted holiday. Read on to learn which candies to keep out of your munchkin's mouth and which tasty alternatives aren't as harmful.
This offender is filled with everything healthy eats shouldn't have—nougat, caramel and, of course, chocolate. "Chocolate is loaded with fat and calories," says Christen Cupples Cooper, RD, owner of Cooper Nutrition in Pleasantville, NY. Plus, "caramel is a serious source of tooth decay," says Cindy Flanagan, DDS, spokesperson for the General Academy of Dentistry. "It gets stuck in the crevices between teeth, which makes it impossible for saliva to wash it away." The result? Cavities. If your child must indulge her sweet tooth, "go for chocolates with a non-dense, airy filling, such as 3 Musketeers," recommends Jacqueline Santora Zimmerman, RD, a nutritionist in New York City.
"The worst kinds of Halloween candies are the ones that are released especially for this time of year," says Rachel Berman, RD, Director of Nutrition for . "These tend to have an extra 100 calories per serving and much more saturated fat." For instance, standard Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are 88 calories a piece, but one Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkin has 180 calories. If your kid's craving something similar, try Justin's Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups. "They're organic—and they have protein," says Heather Bauer, RD, founder of , which delivers healthy snacks monthly to its members.
Not surprisingly, candies masquerading as vegetables don't offer as many health benefits. But this Halloween staple is particularly unhealthy because it's "nothing but sugar and artificial coloring and flavoring," says Zimmerman. With no protein or healthy fats to offer, you'd think the caloric intake is reasonable. Not so, according to Berman: "Candy corn has 150 calories per ounce." And it's bad for teeth too. Dr. Flanagan says, "Eating sugar in such high amounts can cause tooth decay."
These treats are made of white chocolate with candy corn flavoring, covered in M&M's trademark chocolate shell. You know chocolate is full of saturated fat and calories, and candy corn is brimming with sugar and artificial ingredients (and more calories), so combining them into an M&M isn't a nutritious idea. "The white chocolate that they add to these M&Ms is so processed, it's not chocolate at all. And it adds seven grams of saturated fat per serving," says Berman.
How many licks does it take to get to the center? A lot—and that's the problem. "Anything that keeps sugar in the mouth for that long contributes more to tooth decay than a candy that clears out quickly," says Jonathan Shenkin, DDS, a pediatric dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association. But there is a benefit to lollipops: "Kids' mouths are occupied, so they're less likely to continually shovel in candy," says Heather Mangieri, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If that's your goal, "try YummyEarth Organic Lollipops," offers Bauer.
The good news: Each piece is only 15 calories and comes individually wrapped, so it's easy to control the portion size. The bad news: According to Alison Massey, RD, a dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, "Each packet of 10 is loaded with fat and about 22 grams of sugar, which is the equivalent of five-and-a-half sugar packets." More bad news: "Starbursts adhere to teeth. More time in the mouth means more time for bacteria to feed and contribute to cavity formation," says Zimmerman. Even if you don't see any colorful bits in your child's mouth, "there still may be invisible sugar lingering on teeth," explains Dr. Shenkin.
Many little trick-or-treaters are obsessed with sour candies. The popular Sour Patch Kids are sour on the outside and sweet inside, making them more addictive. These candies wreak havoc on pearly whites, though. "These treats' high acid levels can break down tooth enamel quickly," says Dr. Flanagan.
Many candies are essentially packets of loose sugar. One of the leading offenders is Fun Dip. "It's a sugary stick of candy that you dip into colored sugar, the worst possible candy you can buy," warns Rosanne Rust, RD, author of , among others. While bodies need some sugar, the amount in this treat is excessive and bad for teeth. Berman suggests trying Smarties instead. "They're still just sugar, but they're portion-controllable, with 25 calories per serving." That's half of what Fun Dip packs in a serving.
"Encourage kids to taste the rainbow through fruits and vegetables instead," says Massey. That's because "Skittles are made with sugar, corn syrup, hydrogenated palm oil, or trans fat, and artificial colors." But here's a good idea: Because Skittles are so colorful and easy to handle, Mangieri suggests using them to make a haunted Halloween home craft, the spookier version of a gingerbread house, with your kids.
The formula for this chewy treat hasn't changed in over 50 years, a sign something's off nutritionally. While kids don't (usually) swallow sugary gum, the amount of carbohydrates, sugar and calories in it is far from negligible. What can you give children instead? "Sugar-free gum," says Dr. Flanagan. "Chewing gum can actually prevent cavities. It helps dislodge food particles from your teeth and increases saliva, which neutralizes mouth acids and prevents tooth decay." Just don't count on sugar-free gum undoing the damage from all that Halloween candy!