Don’t be tricked by the disguises on those Halloween treats

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October 20, 2012

It’s that time of year again when, unless you live in an isolated cabin in the woods, stocking up on “treats” that in most cases consist of packaged candy is practically obligatory. Now maybe you’re not particularly concerned about what’s in the goodies you hand out to your neighborhood goblins. But keeping in mind that your contributions can have an impact on how healthy a community you live in – not to mention the fact that you may well end up eating the leftovers yourself – we thought you might want to know the results of a casual survey we conducted of Halloween treats at a local supermarket, and where you might find one brand that appears to top them all when it comes to being health conscious.

Also, if you have little monsters of your own, you might well want to have an idea of what’s in the items they collect, since ingredients are often not listed on Halloween-size packaging.

First of all, we were pleased to discover that the main dietary culprit still found in so many processed foods – the sweetener created in the laboratories of the corn refining industry’s “mad scientists” known as high fructose corn syrup – appears to be much less prevalent in today’s candy aisle selections than you might have imagined. In fact, it’s nowhere to be found  in the majority of the Halloween treats manufactured by the company that’s still the biggest name in chocolate-covered goodies – Hershey’s.

Apparently encouraged by recent findings that chocolate might actually be good for us, Hershey’s now seems to have gone on a health kick – one being promoted on the company’s web site in the form of a campaign called  “Moderation Nation,” sponsored by the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition in collaboration with the American Dietetic Association. And while the company site continues to insist that there’s nothing wrong with a little HFCS, and that it’s a “safe ingredient” for use in food and beverages, a scrutiny of the various Hershey candy products now stacked on store shelves reveals that only conventional corn syrup, rather than high fructose corn syrup, is being used  to sweeten them along with cane sugar.

But don’t let yourself be tricked into assuming the HFCS isn’t lurking there somewhere amid all those Hershey’s products – because it is, along with another really scary additive.

 The ‘trickiest treats’ of all

After having examined the ingredient lists of a couple dozen of the Halloween goodies in our supermarket survey, our picks for the two ‘trickiest treats ‘ of 2012 are:

  • Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Crème: these bars not only contain HFCS but partially hydrogenated oil, a major source of artery-clogging trans fat.
  • Nestle’s 100 Grand: while it isn’t the only HFCS-sweetened candy the company makes (the old standard Baby Ruth being another), what prompted us to select it for this dubious distinction is the fact that its “fun size” Halloween package makes a claim of having “still 30% less fat than the leading chocolate brand,” which might trick consumers into thinking it’s a “healthier” candy choice without bothering to look at the actual ingredients.

Not that there aren’t other spooky ingredients to be wary of in popular candy products, one example being artificial colors. Mars’ M&Ms are the biggest users of such food dyes with no less than 10 in a package. Russell Stover Candy Corn Chews also list three, and Skittles contain several as well as hydrogenated palm kernel oil.

Two other long familiar candy bars, 3 Musketeers and Milky Way, both made by Mars, feature hydrogenated palm kernel and/or palm oil, and a third, Snickers, contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil – none of which are exactly part of a “heart-healthy diet.”

Another questionable component of two old favorites, Hershey’s Mounds and Almond Joy, is hydrolyzed milk protein, an ingredient containing hidden MSG, with Almond Joy also listing hydrogenated vegetable oil as being among its ingredients. Then there’s the preservative TBHQ found in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which is related to butane and is suspected of causing hyperactivity in children, as well as asthma.

Also, in many of these products – Hershey’s in particular – you’ll find an ingredient called PGPR, which stands for polyglycerol polyricinoleate. First introduced in 2006, It’s apparently a cheaper replacement for cocoa butter, one of the very ingredients that now makes chocolate considered such a healthy treat.

Now for the good news: we did manage to find a treat sold in conventional stores with ingredients chosen so  conscientiously, it seems too good to be real – which may account for the name.

Unreal Candy is said to be the brainchild of  13-year-old Nicky Bronner, the son of founder Michael Bronner. Under the motto “proving candy can be unjunked,” Unreal makes five candy concoctions,  all sans such “junk” as HFCS, partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors and flavors, All its ingredients are said to be “responsibly sourced,” with dairy coming from pasture-raised cows that are given no antibiotics or added hormones. You’ll find Unreal candies sold at a number of big-name stores, including BJ’s, CVS, Kroger, Staples and Target.

No one, of course, expects candy to be health food. But some of the treats stacked up in anticipation of Halloween are far less healthy than others – and the list of ingredients is your actual only guide to the contents of their “inner sanctum.”