Thursday, October 23, 2014

Trick-or-Treating: What Do You Hand Out On Halloween?


Halloween is almost here. And you know what that means: Candy! It’s one of those Halloween traditions that I just never seem to have grown out of. Those little chocolate bars are seriously dangerous to my waistline. Remember how much Halloween candy you ate when you were a kid? Were you one of those kids who gorged on all that sugary goodness, or were you the type to parse it out and make it last? I was a Trader, that kid that made deals to trade all her bad candy for the good stuff. Anyway, the topic of Halloween candy got me to searching through the scholarly journals in search of an article for today’s post. I came across a paper that asks if children really need all of that candy on Halloween. My first instinct was “Of course they do! It’s Halloween!” But, well, read on…

It seems that being a fat American isn't just limited to adults, childhood obesity has been on the rise over the last 3 to 4 decades. Access to unhealthy foods and the poor nutritional quality of their diets is much to blame for this. The promotion and glorification of high sugar, high fat foods on Halloween is simply a good example. It probably comes as no surprise that research has shown that when children are given free access to tasty food that they eat it, especially if it’s sweet, even when they are not hungry. But is there a good alternative that kids will like? A slightly older paper published in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior investigated the option and value of nonfood treats as substitutes for candy on Halloween.

To do this, the researchers gave 284 trick-or-treating children a choice of a toy or candy. The toys included stretch pumpkin men, large glow-in-the-dark insects, Halloween theme stickers, and Halloween theme pencils. The candy choices were recognizable name brand lollipops, fruit-flavored chewy candies, fruit-flavored crunchy wafers, and “sweet and tart” hard candies. All of these toy and candy options ranged between 5 and 10 cents per item. When a trick-or-treating child arrived at a door, they were asked for their age, gender and a description of their Halloween costume (pretty typical…except maybe the gender question). Then they were presented with 2 identical plates: 1 with 4 different types of toys and the other with 4 different types of candy, alternating by site/household which on side the plates were located. Only children between 3 and 14 were included. And, if the child asked for both toy and candy, they were allowed to take both but were excluded from the study, but only 1 little girl did that.

The results of the study showed that children chose toys as often as they chose candy. This suggests that children may forego candy more readily than adults expect. The authors cite Social Cognitive Theory as providing a way for candy alternatives to become more commonplace. According to this Theory, when parents see that children are accepting the candy alternatives they are more likely to continue the new toy giving behavior. Factor in the other fun Halloween activities – dressing up, walking around the neighborhood at night, etc. – and these toy treats become positively associated with the fun and the holiday.

Okay, so what about the Halloween-only-comes-once-a-year argument. I’ll admit it is a good one and it something that the authors spend time to address. They point out that Halloween isn’t the only holiday where food and candy are advertised. Well, isn’t that the truth. They even make a nice list of other food laden holidays and events: weddings, new babies, graduation, back-to-school, birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Earth Day (wait…you get food on Earth Day?), Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Independence Day. What they don’t add in are all of the other food-filled events that come seasonally (picnics, cook-outs, etc.) and socially (happy hours, get-togethers, etc.). Put together, that’s a lot of bad food choices all year long.

Ultimately, what the authors are getting at is promoting healthy choices throughout the year. Part of this is giving children healthier options and traditions. It is almost more of a change for adults than it is for children. Breaking those food habits and associations isn’t easy, y’all. Food isn’t love, no matter how many Hershey’s Kisses you give someone. Wow did that ever sound shrinky!

But I’ll throw in a last little note that I think almost every child on the planet would agree with: Don’t be that house than hands out toothbrushes.


ResearchBlogging.orgSchwartz, M., Chen, E., & Brownell, K. (2003). Trick, Treat, or Toy: Children Are Just as Likely to Choose Toys as Candy on Halloween Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 35 (4), 207-209 DOI: 10.1016/S1499-4046(06)60335-7


(image and product via epicurious)
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