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A parent's guide to navigating the sugar rush of Halloween
The dark side of Halloween used to be its connection to evil. But there's a new demon in town that plays an even bigger role in Halloween today: sugar. Is it all right to let your children binge for a few days? - photo by Jennifer Graham
The dark side of Halloween used to be its connection to evil. But there's a new demon in town that plays an even bigger role in Halloween today: refined sugar.

Federal officials urged Americans to cut their sugar consumption in half in new dietary guidelines released earlier this year. The World Health Organization recently announced its support for sugar taxes that it says would help fight obesity and diabetes. And a widely publicized study released in January deemed sugar a poison. Also this year, the Food and Drug Administration announced that manufacturers will have to disclose the amount and types of sugar on food labels by July 26, 2018.

Enter Halloween, which, for the typical American family, is the start of the sugar season, which also includes Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter.

With evidence accumulating that excess sugar is at least partly responsibility for suppressing the immune system, making Americans obese and depressed, and causing disease, is it OK to let your children binge for a few days?

To make that decision, it's helpful to know what happens inside us when we swallow something that's mostly made of sugar, like the 91 pieces of candy that the average child collects while trick-or-treating.

Your bloodstream on sugar

In the first 10 minutes, the body breaks down the sugar 6 teaspoons of sugar in a Twix, 7 teaspoons in Butterfinger and 10 in a 3 Musketeers, according to Medical News Today and makes it available for energy.

Refined sugar the kind we spoon into coffee or find in candy and baked goods is made from sugar cane or sugar beets, and the body converts it into glucose and fructose.

Glucose goes straight to the bloodstream; fructose is processed by the liver, which either releases it later into the bloodstream or turns it into fat through a process called lipogenesis, according to the Harvard Heart Newsletter. These fat globules can stick around and eventually turn into nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

If that's not bad enough, a constant assault of fructose on the liver can also increase blood pressure and bad cholesterol, fatten our organs and increase the production of free radicals, the compounds that accelerate aging.

Meanwhile, a half-hour into a sugar binge, the body secretes dopamine, the feel-good hormone that makes us want more. While sugar's effect is not as strong as a heroin addiction, it's enough to nudge us into a pattern of craving, which is why Eliza Barclay wrote for NPR that people should indulge in sweets "rarely and cautiously."

"Otherwise, there's a pretty good chance that your brain is going to start demanding sugar loudly and often," she said.

Finally, after an hour or so, comes the crash: the low-energy, irritability and headache that can accompany fluctuations in blood sugar.

It's worse on an empty stomach, which is why Cheryl Harris, a registered dietician in Fairfax, Virginia, told The Seattle Times that sweets should come after a meal. Fiber and protein help blunt sugar's effects, as does fat. That's a little ironic since our bodies turn excess sugar into fat; the liver can only process about 6 to 9 teaspoons each day.

Julie Baker, a nutritionist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Atlanta, said that once sugar travels from the stomach to the small intestine, it doesn't matter whether you got the sugar from a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup or a pear; the body processes it in the same way.

"How much sugar is already in your blood will determine how the body uses the sugar," she said. If you already have a lot of sugar in your system, then what you just digested will form either fat or glycogen, the storage form of glucose thats used for quick energy. It doesnt matter if its junk food or fruit.

How much is OK?

The latest dietary guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture say Americans should consume no more than 10 percent of their calories from sugar; for the average adult on a 2,000-calorie diet, that's no more than 12 teaspoons a day half what is normally consumed.

Some critics have said, however, that the guidelines are too lenient, thanks to heavy lobbying by the sugar industry, which was pummeled by the recent disclosure that in the 1960s it paid Harvard scientists to publish a paper that said Americans should cut fat, not sugar, to decrease the risk of heart disease. While it's not unusual for manufacturers to fund research and many such studies are free of bias, the Sugar Association acknowledged that the funding should have been disclosed.

It also staunchly denies that sugar causes obesity, and challenges the reputed addictive qualities of sugar by noting that "it is highly unlikely that a person would rush to the kitchen for a teaspoon of sugar."

Another longtime criticism of sugar has been its effect on children's teeth.

When we eat sweets, some of the sugar clings to our teeth. Bacteria feeds on it, creating lactic acid that corrodes tooth enamel, making sugar the No. 1 cause of tooth decay, according to a 2014 study published in the journal BMC Public Health.

But the type of sugar matters, too. Sticky candies, like gummies, are worse for teeth, which is why one dentist, Dr. Roger Lucas, says it's OK for children to have ice cream and chocolate.

And speaking of chocolate, in recent years, it's been touted as a health food, so long as it's heavy on cocoa and light on sugar. Some studies have shown dark chocolate improves insulin levels and reduces blood pressure, in addition to improving exercise performance.

Of course, chocolate also has caffeine, a stimulant most parents don't want their children to have. So where does that leave the conscientious parent with regard to Halloween?

Navigating sugar overload

According to a survey by the National Confectioners Association, which dubs its website Halloween Central, 76 percent of American households plan to hand out candy this year to trick-or-treaters, and nearly three-quarters will give two or three pieces to each child.

Although it profits from the holiday, the NCA encourages parents to talk to their children about moderation, and notes that miniature (or "fun-sized") candies are the biggest sellers, which makes it easier for parents to monitor their children's intake. The group suggests that parents have a plan for candy consumption prior to trick-or-treating, and that it could involve a certain number of pieces or calories a day.

The calorie counters at PopSugar have done the math on some of the most popular fun-sized treats, many of which, like the Hershey's bar and Milky Way Dark, have fewer calories than in the average banana.

In addition, Nasrin Sinichi, a dietician in Tulsa, Oklahoma, suggests children eat something healthy or be active every day after consuming their allotment of candy. She also says parents could offer to buy some of their children's candy so they can do something else fun that doesn't involve a blood sugar spike. There are also organized candy buybacks in some communities.

That might not work for this newly minted YouTube star, a toddler named Adelynne who says yes to everything her dad asks, until he asks if he can eat all of her Halloween candy.

Adelynne might also say no to the "switchwitch," the mythical creature who comes in the night, like the tooth fairy, and leaves a toy in exchange for the child's candy stash.

But older children who are open to reason might be willing to donate a good part of their candy to help others. Operation Gratitude collects Halloween candy to send to American troops.

And Utahn Pam Dana who blogs at Over the Big Moon suggests saving Halloween candy to use to decorate gingerbread houses in December.