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Post-Halloween: Is Sugar Addiction A Thing?

Every year, millions of children and the adults accompanying them go door to door in search of candy on October 31 to celebrate Halloween. While the celebration was previously considered relatively harmless, the world (and parents, in particular) have become increasingly concerned with the excessive amounts of candy that are accumulated and consumed on the evening of Halloween.

This has led to increased attention and the monitoring of candy consumption in many homes in North America and across the world. The concerns lie not only in the general unhealthiness of candy and sweet foods, but also increasingly in the fear that Halloween may fuel sugar addictions in the costumed youth.

But to what extent is sugar addiction really a cause for concern? Have we become too consumed by the desire to be overly cautious, or is the Halloween plunder that’s secured across the world truly a launching pad for confectionery addiction?

In this article, we will assess the realities of sugar addiction, some of the statistics associated with trick-or-treating, and ultimately determine whether there’s genuine cause for apprehension.

Halloween: A snapshot

In 2018, over 175 million people participated in Halloween festivities in the United States alone. That translated to an expenditure of $86.79 per person—a record. That means the country’s overall spend eclipsed $9 billion on the spooky holiday last year. Over 90 percent of the participants bought candy, which accounted for $2.9 billion of the $9-billion total[1]. It is estimated that 30 percent of the children who trick-or-treat are allowed to consume all of the candy they gather[2]. With limited statistics and data available, it’s impossible to say for certain, but it’s very likely that this number represents a significant decrease compared to previous generations.

While soda companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi have taken a hit due to the increased concern over sugar and its undesirable qualities, spending on candy during Halloween continues to rise. Halloween candy accounts for a staggering 8 percent of yearly confectionery (food items high in carbohydrates and sugar) sales overall in the United States. That is equal to 300,000 tonnes of candy, or 2 pounds of candy per citizen[3]. We don’t need statistics or a dietary professional to realize that this is far beyond what would and should be considered a moderate, healthy level of sugar and salt intake for that short period of time.

Two factors in this increase in sugar consumption and candy distribution are advertising spends and the cost of candy itself. In 2015, the University of Connecticut’s RUDD Center for Food Policy and Obesity released a study on snack food nutrition and marketing to youth entitled Snack F.A.C.T.S (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score) 2015. The researchers discovered a startling series of revelations on the increase in advertising spend in the food industry, and a reinforcement of the underlying concern about the lack of nutritional value in snack foods being developed for children and teenagers. In 2014, snack food advertising for “sweet snacks” alone eclipsed $395 million in the United States, an increase of $52 million overall from just four years previously. The leading brand in this category was General Mills at $133 million, followed by other brands like Modelez Global, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo and an “other” category comprised of the rest. Again, these figures were in relation to sweets alone. Of those included in the study, only a quarter of them actually met typical Sweet Snacks nutrition standards[4].

Additionally, while candy bars could run individuals up to $4 or even $5 a few decades back, an entire assortment of Halloween candy can now be purchased at Walmart for less than that. Due to scale and, in some cases, cheaper and less authentic ingredients, candy production costs are at an all-time low.

So, we have established that Halloween candy consumption and expenditure is on the rise, and we’ve also uncovered that marketing budgets reserved for the very youth and teens that will ultimately consume it is also largely on the up and up. But our initial question remains: just how real are the concerns around sugar addiction as a result of consumption? We’ll examine this question and its repercussions below.

Sugar Addiction and Halloween: Cause for Concern?

People often wonder whether sugar addiction is legitimate or just a fiction made up by overly cautious “health freaks.” Well, much research has been conducted on the topic, and the verdict has been in for some time: sugar is, unquestionably, highly addictive. In fact, animal studies have concluded that sugar is more addictive than some drugs of abuse including cocaine[5]. This makes sense, as sugar consumption shares many characteristics with drug use, including the euphoric feeling that individuals get when they indulge their cravings. As with many other addictions, those who consume sugar also experience intense sugar cravings in spite of the increased risk of headaches, weight gain and other health concerns.

But, why do we want more? The answer is in a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is the brain’s natural reward system. Neuroscientists have shown through MRI scans that sugar consumption results in dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens, an area in the brain that is known as part of the “pleasure centre.” This is the same area that is targeted by opioid drugs such as heroin and morphine[6].

Despite the perceived rewards that the brain tells us are associated with sugary foods, consuming excessive amounts of it, as well as foods high in salt, can lead to health complications like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and more. In Canada, a country that has lower obesity rates than the United States, 30 percent or 1 in 3 adults are overweight or obese and may require support from a medical practitioner to manage their condition[7]. These conditions are also tied to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, which have residual effects across society and families.

Contributing to issues like obesity and the gross over consumption of sugar is the confusing labeling tactics used by candy companies. There are over 61 different names or terms for sugar, many of which are employed in order to confuse consumers as to what it really is that they’re buying. Some common examples of alternative names for sugar are sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, maltose, rice syrup and more[8]. If that wasn’t enough, over 74 percent of packaged foods sold in grocery stores contain sugar that was added.[9]

Given everything we’ve noted about sugar’s addictive properties and the dangerous diseases and conditions associated with its overuse, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that severe addictions to sugary snacks and beverages should be treated with the same care and attention that a drug or alcohol addiction would warrant. Yes, this blog post is based around cautions associated with Halloween candy consumption, but sugar addictions are rampant all year-round. From milkshakes to brownies and ice cream, “junk food” is well accounted for in modern society and needs to be consumed in moderation. Bingeing, on the other hand, is what can happen as a result of sugar addiction, and it can lead to many of the unwanted complications we’ve previously discussed.

So, we’ve now established that sugar is addictive and can be dangerous not only during Halloween, but on any day of the year.

Halloween and Candy: A Conclusion

We began by noting the world’s newfound concern around limiting sugar intake and making healthy food choices comprising real food instead of processed food laden with white flour and other unhealthy carbs. Parents are making sure their children eat desserts like yogurt or a piece of fruit, or for those who want a special treat, a small piece of dark chocolate. This change in attitude has been reflected in the world’s retail environment. For many households, trips to McDonald’s have been replaced with trips to Whole Foods. However, the obesity epidemic in North America continues and remains a cause for concern. That epidemic can be attributed to several factors rather than one or two, but Halloween itself and the season that surrounds it is unquestionably a time to closely monitor children when it comes to sugar consumption. During times like this, we should be on extra high alert. This applies to individuals or couples who are monitoring their own sugar intake, and to parents seeking to look after their children and keep them healthy.

While it’s true that much of society has made it a focus to create or maintain healthy meal habits, we started out by highlighting that this shift doesn’t appear to apply to Halloween or its candy consumption. The $9 billion spent on Halloween last year in America alone isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, as those statistics have continued to trend upwards in recent years instead of declining. Sugar addiction is very real, and has a profound effect on society when it comes to mental and physical health, and this should not be taken lightly. Exacerbating this reality around Halloween is the fact that several candy-selling corporations specifically target children and teenagers, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ads geared towards sweet snacks on an annual basis. This means that, come Halloween, the cravings and sweet tooths for the large amounts of incoming candy have already been pre-programmed into the minds of excited trick-or-treaters. Confusing and misleading labeling tactics serve to further misrepresent what is actually in sugary products and junk food, many of which also contain artificial sweeteners.

So, in closing, is sugar addiction a thing? Is it a concern around the holidays? Yes and, most certainly, yes. Parents would be best served to educate their children on the realities of sugar and the negative side effects of the commodity that go along with the positive feelings they experience as a result of dopamine release. All of this is not to suggest that Halloween, which occupies a special place in the heart of many, needs to be cast aside. But at the same time, since the negative repercussions are a well-established concern, this occasion should be observed responsibly, and not taken lightly as a carefree day of consumption.


Photo credit: Luke Jones. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.