Dentists: Halloween Candy May Come Back to Haunt You

Group of girls trick or treating on Halloween
(Getty Images)

Halloween and candy. You can’t have one without the other. As we know, children are willing to brave the dark and the cold New England air and confront spooky vampires and witches, to get candy.

How much candy can one little trick-or-treater collect on Halloween? An average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting to about 9,000 calories and about three pounds of sugar.

Back to Haunt You

Let’s examine those candies. In the dental world, candy is a simple carbohydrate. It is usually broken down easily by the body. The main sugars in candy are sucrose, fructose and glucose.  Also, candy processing often requires an acid additive, such as lemon juice, to prevent crystallization.

Unfortunately, as much as people love candy, bacteria in the mouth love sugar. Bacteria metabolize sugars – this means they ingest sugar and produce acid as a byproduct.  That acid leads to cavities. Bacteria really enjoy sucrose, one of the main types of sugar in candy. They use sucrose to create “scaffolding” in order to “live” on the teeth and better attack tooth enamel.

Studies have shown clear evidence that adding sugar to one’s diet, especially between meals, leads to cavities. Studies have also shown that sticky sweets, in particular, increase the likelihood of cavities.

Cavities, or dental caries, are very common and can be severe.  According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the rate of tooth decay in children aged 2 to 5 years increased nearly 17% in five years, ending in 2004. And, based on the most recent data, 28% of children aged 2 to 5 years in the U.S. are affected by tooth decay.

A Scary Path 

When kids have dental issues, it affects their growth and development. If left untreated, early childhood dental caries can result in life threatening infection, significant pain, chewing difficulty leading to malnutrition, and gastrointestinal disorders that can result in a failure to thrive, poor sleep habits, low self-esteem, and poor school performance.

So, dentists resolutely recommend moderation of candy consumption, proper oral hygiene and substitution with alternative treats.

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, it’s best to avoid chewy or sticky candies, and opt for dark chocolate, sugar-free gum, pretzels, and crackers. Non-food alternatives like temporary tattoos, stickers, glow sticks, vampire teeth, or key chains are also good options.

The recommendations derive from some evidence and some accepted beliefs.  For instance, evidence exists that dark chocolate contains antioxidants and less sugar than milk chocolate. Chewing sugar-free gum can increase salivary flow and help neutralize and wash away the acids that are produced when food is broken down by the bacteria in plaque on teeth.

Dentists also believe that candy is best eaten right after a meal for several reasons. Although unproven, there is a prevalent theory that bacteria may not be able to further metabolize the sugars because they are “full” from the meal. Dinnertime, in particular, is closer to tooth-brushing time, which limits the tooth’s exposure to metabolized candy. And, salivation may peak during or after mealtime.

Stash Collection 

At the end of the night, when the trick-or-treaters dump their candy collections on the kitchen table, what should parents do?

Some options include confiscating the haul and parsing out the items — perhaps one after dinner every night. There is also the tried-and-true option of divvying up the stash and bringing the candy into the office so that “Karen from accounting” can partake.

And, just in case you’ve been spooked by these chilling statistics, keep in mind that after Halloween is over, candy canes, hot chocolate, and gingerbread cookies are on the horizon.