Tracking Tricks and Treats

Five kids and one adult rank Halloween candies.

The distinction between “candy” and “Halloween candy” can be summed up this way: The latter is exactly the same as the former, only there’s more of it. According to the National Confectioners Association, whose Candy USA is almost everything you could ever want in a Web site devoted to the subject of candy in the U.S.A., Halloween is the busiest candy-buying season of the year. (Easter is a pale shadow in comparison, moving a mere $1,856,000,000 of sweets last year in comparison to Halloween’s mighty $1,983,000,000.)

Halloween also leads the way in mind share, according to an NCA press release: “Parents and Kids Agree: Halloween is a Fun Family Tradition.” The NCA isn’t just whistling Dixie here, either. They have stats to back up their startling assertion: “In a recent survey, 81 percent of moms and dads said trick-or-treating is a fun tradition for their kids.” (What about the remaining 19? They’re probably the ones handing out the “Halloween Is Satan’s Holiday” pamphlets.) Eighty-three percent of kids 6 to 11 cite candy and gum as their favorite treats. Small toys “ranked a distant second,” garnering just 2 percent of the vote, although the NCA doesn’t say whether this takes into account the subsampling who believed that small toys are candy.

All this is well and good, of course. But the NCA is woefully uninformative when questioned about which are the most popular brands of candy at Halloween time. “The same as the rest of the year,” an association press person snapped when asked, as if for the millionth time. So I took it upon myself to perform a small, highly unscientific test.

A Note on Methodology

First I bought 26 different kinds of candy from the Halloween display at my local supermarket. This is the total figure, which includes three varieties of Reese’s, two of Twizzlers, two of M&M’s, three of Hershey’s, and two of candy corn. Within this group were represented all 10 of the best-selling candies in America as ranked by the NCA, with the exception of Mentos, which I excluded because their commercials are creepy and disturbing. Then I separated the candies into four groups:

  • The Chocolate. This group included Nestle Crunch, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, Almond Joy, M&M’s, Snickers, Reese’s, Kit Kat, Hershey’s Kisses, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, Hershey’s Special Dark, Krackel, Mr. Goodbar, and Creepy Peepers, which are milk chocolate eyeballs filled with caramel goo.
  • The “Fruit”- and “Vegetable”-Based. Included in this group were Twizzlers, Jolly Ranchers, Life Savers, Pumpkin Peeps, and candy corn.
  • The Fruit. This group consists entirely of raisins. They were included because, while not technically a candy, anecdotal information suggests they are the most widely distributed and also the most widely despised non-candy Halloween treat.
  • The Sweet and the Tart. This group consists of the eponymous SweeTarts and also Starbursts.

Next I assembled two tasting panels. The children’s panel was made up of five kids, ages 3-1/2 to 9, who were convened in two separate groups. The adult’s panel consisted of me.

The Results

Here are the panels’ picks, in reverse order of popularity.

4) The Fruit Group. Hands down the least popular group, among both me and the kids. The sheer lack of variety here, Sun-Maid California Raisin Mini-Packs being the only choice, would have been enough to doom it to last place. The unanimous finding that raisins were repellent only sealed the deal. (“Yucky”—Maeve, age 3-1/2; “I’d give them to my mom”—Jack, age 9.) Confirming the inverse relationship between food value and deliciousness, raisins are unquestionably the most nutritious treat tested. (See Chart 1.) Their high concentration of carbohydrates and fruit sugars makes them a relatively efficient source of energy, they are fat- and sodium-free, and they entirely lack additives, the sole ingredient of the raisins tested being “California seedless raisins.”

Ingredients That Aren’t Terrible for You

Ingredient  Found In Value
LecithinM&M’s, Reese’s, Hershey’s, Snickers, Baby Ruth, Nestle Crunch, Butterfinger, Kit KatAids in healthy liver function
GelatinCandy corn, StarburstA pure and easily digested protein
HoneyCandy cornOne of the most efficient carbohydrates
Gum acaciaM&M’sHighly nutritious; natural source of fiber
Carnauba waxReese’s PiecesKeeps your hardwood floors shiny clean

3) The Sweet and the Tart Group. Once past their initial confusion over the concept of sweet-tartness, the kids weighed in decisively in favor of Starbursts. (“They’re chewy and stretchy and they pretty much never lose their taste.”—Jack) Only one, 4-year-old Eva, evinced any enthusiasm for the SweeTarts: “I never heard of candy that tastes sour,” she said, adding, “My shoe came off.” For my part, I admired the SweeTart’s genre-bending complexity, although the candy has the mouth feel of an Alka-Seltzer. From a nutritional standpoint, it seems worth noting that SweeTarts have basically nothing in them: no fat, no cholesterol, and no sodium. This, combined with their relatively low calorie count—a Giant Chewy SweeTart clocks in at just 40 calories—almost qualifies them as health food, at least compared to the other candies tested. Unfortunately, they also fail to contain any dietary fiber or protein, and their high ratio of sugars to total carbohydrates almost qualifies them as rocket fuel.

2) The Chocolate Group. A surprising second-place finisher among the kids. This result flies in the face of Commerce Department statistics indicating that chocolate is a clear winner in retail sales ($13 billion last year) versus non-chocolate candies ($7.5 billion). The multipurpose chocolates (Reese’s, Snickers, Kit Kat) tested particularly well, although that wasn’t unanimous. Chase, 4, evolved a position on Almond Joy that went in seconds from highly favorable (“Ooh! It looks like a cake!”) to deeply negative (“Coconut; I don’t like it”). Hershey’s Special Dark seemed to skew older—it received low marks from the younger kids ("I don’t want this anymore.”—Jessie, 4) and high ones from Jack, who observed astutely that “it tastes like chocolate chips,” and me, for its relative lack of sweetness and complex, sophisticated top note of raw cocoa.

A nutritional note: Pretty much everything in this group is a dietary train wreck. (See Chart 2.) In almost every case the single most prominent ingredient is milk chocolate, which is an amalgam of things that are really bad for you, including sugar and milk fat. The sole, small exception: lecithin, a soy-based emulsifier added to improve texture and mouth feel and reduce the incidence of “bloom,” the whitish discoloration that occurs in chocolate over time. The primary component of lecithin is choline, which is believed to have many health benefits including the maintenance of a healthy liver.

Ingredients That Are Terrible for You

IngredientFound InValue
Refined sugarEverything except raisinsBelieved to contribute to obesity, tooth decay, hyperactivity, diabetes, arthritis, eczema, PMS, cancer, and indigestion
Palm kernel oilBaby Ruth, Butterfinger, ReeseSticks, Reese’s Pieces, Creepy PeepersHigh in saturated fat
Milk fatSnickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, ReeseSticks, Kit KatLinked to coronary artery disease
ButterSnickers, Creepy PeepersSee “Milk fat”
DextrinStarburstUsed in cheap, frustrating adhesive on postage stamps and envelopes

1) The “Fruit”- and “Vegetable”-Based Group. A surprise winner but a clear one, thanks to some fairly strong opinions from the kids. (“Yummy”… “Really yummy…” “Do you want to share that with me?”) For the record, with the sentimental exception of candy corn I found every candy in this group to be loathsome—tooth-jarringly sweet, colored and flavored to an unnatural degree, and lacking either the subtlety or the textural complexity of any of the chocolates, even Creepy Peepers. The kids loved them, though. Jessi, Eva, and Maeve summed up the appeal of the group, which seemed to have less to do with the candies’ taste than with their amusement value:

Jessi (tasting Twizzlers Cherry Pull-n-Peel, which pulls apart into thin strips): “It’s like a red string.”
Eva: “It’s like a red snake, and like a red worm. Hey, this is bending over.”
Maeve: “Silly candy.”

If you’re looking for something good to say about the candies in this group, it’s that they lack the animal fats present in chocolates. That’s a plus, nutritionally speaking. What they do have is a high concentration of sugars and oils. This gives them their characteristically slick mouth feel and a relatively fast liquefaction time, which means that the empty calories in the sugar reach the bloodstream double quick. And what did that mean to the kids? To be honest, I’m not sure because at this point they decided they were PowerPuff Girls and they could fly, and sing besides, so I had them fly out of the house and back to their moms before my house incurred any structural damage.