Sugar Math for Halloween

halloween_cupcake_with_a_bat_on_top_an_trick_or_treat_written_on_it_0515-0912-1919-4745_SMUPosted on 10/29/13 in the Health & Wellness Section of the Wall Street Journal.

Research into candy and children helps explain why they love it and, despite some contradictory theories, offers a few guidelines for this time of year.

Children may be more partial than adults to sugar because of the way their taste buds are clustered. “Children have the same number of taste buds as adults, but their tongue is a whole lot smaller, so the flavors are more intense the younger you are,” says Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, which researches why we eat what we do. “That’s why little kids don’t like bitter foods and really like sweet foods. The effect is magnified.”

Americans eat far more added sugar—white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrups and honey, among others—than is recommended. The average person consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, or 355 calories. Boys, ages 14 to 18, take in 34 teaspoons, or roughly 550 calories, according to the American Heart Association. Researchers say children and teens should follow recommendations for adults of no more than 9 teaspoons a day for men and 6 teaspoons for women.

U.S. government dietary guidelines use a different system, recommending that added sugars and solid fats combined, the so-called discretionary calories, should make up no more than 15% of a daily diet. However, kids and teens on average exceed this level from added sugars alone, which account for 16% of their daily total calories, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More parents are devising tricks to get the Halloween treats back from their children amid worries over daily sugar intake. Bonnie Rochman joins Lunch Break with a look at what candy really does to children, and what parents can do about it. Photo: Getty Images.

That said, most dentists aren’t overly concerned about how much candy children eat on Halloween, says Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Augusta, Maine, and a spokesman for the American Dental Association. “One day in the life of a child is not going to ruin them,” he says. “We are worried about the next three or four weeks of their candy-eating life, especially if they are a good hoarder.”

Even fastidious brushers risk eroding important minerals in teeth, which can lead to cavities, through frequent consumption of sugar, says Dr. Shenkin. If you’re going to let your kids eat candy, incorporate it into mealtimes when other carbohydrates and sugars are already being consumed to limit how often their teeth are exposed, he suggests.

Steer clear of gooey, sticky candy such as caramels, taffy and gummy bears that get wedged between teeth, he says. Chocolate—the plainer, the better—is best because it doesn’t cling to tooth surfaces. And sugarless gum can help because it increases saliva flow and gets rid of food debris, Dr. Shenkin says.

To limit sugar consumption, some parents plan to take advantage of many dentists’ offers to purchase Halloween treats, typically for $1 a pound. Other organizations collect candy and ship it to soldiers overseas.

And more households are engaging in a bit of family bartering, swapping Twix bars and Milk Duds for toys.

“This will be our third year of a buyback, and my kids are so excited,” says Mardi Brekke-Hutchings, a Seattle software consultant who has a 5-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. “They’ve already put in a request for the toy they want.”

Health experts say obesity is not the primary concern with sugar intake. Research has linked sugar consumption to other health problems, including high levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the bloodstream, and cardiovascular disease. It also tends to take the place of eating more nutritious foods, meaning children might be missing out on important nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Sugar contributes to fatty liver disease, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, says Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at Benioff Children’s Hospital at the University of California, San Francisco. “We know that children accumulate more liver fat than adults do for the same amount of sugar, but we don’t know why,” says Dr. Lustig, who says he is conducting research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to find an answer.

Research in animals indicates that sugar can be addictive, but the same has yet to be proved in humans. Cravings for sugar don’t necessarily meet the technical definition of addiction, which includes components of both tolerance and withdrawal, Dr. Lustig says.

“There is absolutely no question that sugar induces tolerance,” he says. “The more you eat, the more you need to get the same reward—that deep, visceral response that says, ‘things are good.’ ” But whether people actually suffer symptoms of sugar withdrawal is less clear, Dr. Lustig says.

There is controversy, too, over whether children really experience a sugar high, possibly followed by a sugar crash, after eating too many sweets. Many parents and teachers might swear the phenomenon is real. But scientific studies have failed to find consistent evidence.

The body’s ability to increase its tolerance for sugar might explain why some people experience a sugar high and others don’t, suggests Dr. Lustig. “You don’t see a sugar high in adults,” he says.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says the idea of kids experiencing a sugar high is largely anecdotal.

“People swear by it, that if a lot of sugar is coming into a little body at once, that kids are bouncing off the walls,” says Dr. Nestle. “But I’m not aware of any documented evidence.”

Tell that to Keri Potter, a horse trainer in Del Mar, Calif. “My 9-year-old goes crazy when she has candy. She gets hyper and very moody, with highs and lows that are hard to deal with,” says Ms. Potter.

Ms. Potter, who has two other daughters, ages 22 months and 13, invokes what she calls the Great Pumpkin with her children.

The kids select a handful of favorite candies to eat sparingly and leave the rest outside next to their pumpkins before they go to bed. When they awake the next morning, the Great Pumpkin has whisked away their sweets and left them a gift.

Although the baby is too young and the teen has outgrown the charade, middle child C.C., short for Cecelia Carolina, is still game. She will be receiving a gift certificate to tween clothing store Justice, one of her favorites.

“I am willing to spend $30 or $40 on a present if she will give away her candy,” Ms. Potter says.

Some families have extended their anti-candy inclinations to the trick-or-treaters coming to their door. Ms. Brekke-Hutchings, in Seattle, says she has purchased 96 glow sticks to hand out on Halloween. As for the candy she buys from her own children, “We just throw it away,” says Ms. Brekke-Hutchings. “It feels wasteful, but if it’s not good enough for my kids, why should I give it to someone else?”

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