Alternative candies like SmartSweets have less sugar, but are they really the healthier Halloween option? Here's what experts say.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Between pumpkin-shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the always controversial candy corn, Halloween season and sweets go hand in hand. Yet while some people are eager to dive into a fun-size bag of Skittles to commemorate the holiday, others may be eyeing the allegedly healthier options popping up on supermarket shelves.

The popular brand SmartSweets, which mimics candies like caramels, Twizzlers, Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish, boasts 92% less sugar than traditional candies — but are SmartSweets and the other alternative candies like them, really too good to be true? Here’s what to know.

A rundown on SmartSweets

SmartSweets, which come in colorful packaging, have between 1 gram and 4 grams of sugar per package — and say as much right on the bag. The candies also boast “no artificial sweeteners, added sugar or sugar alcohols.” Instead, SmartSweets use allulose, a natural sweetener found in foods like raisins, figs, jackfruit and maple syrup.

According to dietitian Marlyne Perez, allulose “may cause gas, bloating and queasiness if consumed in large quantities” — but that’s not the only ingredient to be cautious about while eating SmartSweets.

Unlike most candies, which contain little to no additional fiber, SmartSweets has a ton of it. While fiber is an important macronutrient, taking in too much fiber all at once can be hard on your digestive system. A 100-calorie serving of the brand's “Sourmelon Bites,” for example, contains 46% of the daily recommended fiber, which Perez says comes from “inulin, a naturally occurring fiber found in chicory roots.”

“Manufacturers like using inulin because it can be mixed with other ingredients without affecting flavor; however, because it tends to be added liberally to foods, it can cause gas, belly bloat and abdominal pain after consuming even one serving,” she explains. “People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or are following a low-FODMAP diet should try to avoid inulin.”

What to consider about candy alternatives

There are some health concerns — like needing to manage one’s blood sugar — that may prompt people to seek out lower sugar alternatives to candy. But those without such concerns might reconsider grabbing a bag of alternative candies this Halloween season.

“With candies with less sugar, we may feel like we have permission to eat more of it,” says dietitian Brenna O’Malley. Some people, she notes, may feel about SmartSweets the same way people did about lite ice cream, eating entire pints of “healthier” ice cream alternatives as opposed to the one or two servings they might have of regular ice cream.

“It feeds this narrative that candy is something you should restrict — but not this candy. That’s good marketing on their part. But when you zoom out, you may ask, ‘Why do people eat candy in the first place?’” she points out. “It’s not for its health benefits, just like you don’t eat birthday cake for its health benefits. You eat these things because they taste good, because you’re craving them, because it’s Halloween or it’s connected to nostalgia. It’s good to let that be OK.”

O’Malley says that oftentimes “the root of bingeing or feeling out of control around foods is because of restriction.”

“That can be physical restriction, in that you’re not giving yourself enough food, but it can also be a mental restriction that can happen sometimes when someone chooses only the diet versions or the health-ified versions of things and are not letting themselves have what they're actually craving,” she says.

Kathleen Moore, a registered nutritionist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that holidays like Halloween, and the sweet treats that they are associated with, can sometimes expose challenges in our relationship with food.

“If you already have a sweet craving, it’s probably more healthy to eat the original candy you’re craving and face your relationship with it,” Moore says, adding that if you find yourself feeling out of control with sugar, it’s best to explore that feeling rather than attempt to suppress it with a healthier alternative.

It’s also important to know that all candy, be it “smart” or not, does not have nutritional value, and should not replace foods that do.

“Make sure you’re not skipping a meal and saying, ‘Oh, because I’m eating this candy, I should not eat breakfast or lunch,’” says Moore. “When we eat, we should be giving ourselves foods that nourish us and prevent us from illness. Once we’ve done that, if you want something specifically for pleasure and enjoyment, why not?”