ANNAPOLIS – Kindly neighbors may think they're doing kids a favor by tossing granola bars (search) or boxed raisins into trick-or-treaters' bags, but these "candies in costume" can be more harmful to teeth than chocolate bars.
Dentists and nutritionists warn that some seemingly healthy treats actually stick to teeth longer than foods with soluble sugars, so the teeth end up in contact with the sweets longer. As a result, parents should monitor which candy and how much of it their children consume.
The potentially tricky treats include granola bars, peanut butter crackers, jelly beans, raisins and caramels.
"Our conventional mind says that chocolate may be the worst, but there are things that are more harmful," said Ross Heisman, dentist and member of the Anne Arundel County Dental Society (search).
The damage, Heisman said, depends on how sticky the food is and how much it adheres to teeth. Everyone knows that feeling of stubborn bits of candy wedged in teeth, but Heisman said the potential damage to kids' choppers can be avoided easily enough.
"You need to brush within a reasonable period of time," said Heisman, who used to disappoint many Halloweeners by passing out toothbrushes on the holiday. Getting more into the spirit of the holiday, he now gives out little toys less likely to rot children's teeth, or cause a frown when they hit a tot's sack.
Dentists are not the only ones warning about the dangers of unrestricted Halloween candy consumption. The American Academy of Pediatrics (search), in recognition of a national focus on obesity, has made a short list of several steps to ensure a healthy, safe All Hallows Eve.
The organization recommends that kids eat a healthy meal before going out to trick-or-treat so they'll be less inclined to gorge on candy. The AAP also suggests waiting until the end of the night to sort through the booty and allotting kids specific portions of candy.
"Be very careful about super-sweet treats," said Daniel Levy, a pediatrician from Owings Mills, Md., who suggested handing out fruit, vegetables and homemade goodies.
Very sweet candies often contain corn syrup, a cheap sweetener that can cause cravings for more goodies, Levy said. Those cravings can develop into lifelong bad eating habits that contribute to obesity problems.
If children do receive a lot of candy, experts recommend that parents limit children to eating it no more than two or three times per week.
Well-meaning parents can substitute treats with other non-edible goodies. Crayons, yo-yos, Play-Doh, jacks and Nerf balls are some popular Halloween treats that Wal-Mart stores have noticed are all selling well this season.
The AAP also suggests coloring books, connect-the-dot and memory games as possible rewards to distribute to children.
However, no matter how much care parents put into choosing and limiting treats, Heisman said excess and sugary treats are inevitable at Halloween.
"Children will consume a lot more sweets than they usually do," he said. "Parents should supervise young children and monitor their consumption."
Sandy Procter, a registered dietitian at Kansas State University Research and Extension (search), told Culinary.net that the best way to curb kids' candy consumption is to focus on the other aspects of the holiday.
"You can focus on the excitement of the day, and make getting candy less of an issue," Procter said. "The big deal is dressing up and seeing the pumpkins on the steps."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.