Health & Spirit

Quinn on Nutrition: Trick or treat?

Barbara Quinn, The Monterey County Herald on

Published in Nutrition

My grandkids love to help me hand out treats to young neighbors who drop by on the eve of October 31.

"What do you say?" five-year old Frances announces in her very grown-up voice. She waits until she hears "Trick or treat" to carefully drop a piece of candy into each outstretched bag.

Nutritionally, sugar treats can be tricky. Naturally derived from sugar cane or sugar beets, sucrose (what we call table sugar) is a simple carbohydrate used for fuel by every cell in the body. In it's very simplest form, sugar breaks down to even smaller sugar molecules, glucose and fructose.

We are born with a taste for sweets, perhaps as a way to guide us to nourishment, say those who study such things. Breast milk for example, is high in lactose -- the natural sugar found in milk. Fruit is another natural source of sugar, primarily in the form of fructose.

In the world of food preparation, sugar has useful qualities. Cooks use it to grow yeasts for bread and to produce tender and moist baked goods. Sugar stabilizes whipped egg and cream products. And it protects jams and jellies from spoiling.

We seem to have tipped the scales on sugar consumption in our modern world, however. Besides contributing to our epidemic of growing waistlines, excess sugar intake is now being examined for its role in diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

What is considered excessive? Experts who examined the research for our latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans say anything more than 10 percent of our daily calories from added sugars (the stuff we add to everything from cookie dough to tomato sauce) is unhealthfully excessive.

Let's say a person we'll call Bob purchased a bag of Halloween treats ... or let's say maybe 2 or 3 bags of Halloween treats. And let's say Bob in good conscience bought his favorite treats in the "fun" size. And let's assume Bob's calorie-tracker says he eats about 1800 calories a day. That means that no more than 180 calories in his day (10 percent) should come from added sugars.


Each gram of added sugar Bob eats contributes 4 calories to his daily intake. A fun-sized Snickers bar, for instance, contains 8.5 grams or 34 calories of added sugar. A mini bag of Skittles contains 12 grams or 48 calories of added sugar.

Bob's understanding of this holiday is that every ring of the doorbell is a signal to pop another fun-sized treat into his mouth. At this rate, he might easily reach the excessive-intake-of-added-sugars category by the time his doorbell rings four times.

I think we'll do pretzels this year.

(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of "Quinn-Essential Nutrition" (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to

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