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Does Candy Make Life Better?

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Sweets for Your Sweet May Be a Healthful Treat

Valentine’s Day is coming, and an extravagant box of high-end chocolates is a romantic and easy gift… impressively expensive, sensual and luxurious…but is it a loving one? After all, even if all the pieces in the heart-shaped box are made of dark chocolate with high cacao content, candy is still candy—highly caloric, loaded with sugar and fat, and nearly devoid of other nutrients. Is this really a “gift” to choose for someone you love?

Sweets for Your Sweet

For all the delight that it brings to our lives, many of us have very complicated relationships with candy—so much so that Samira Kawash, PhD, a professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, has left her initial, more serious field of study to instead devote herself to learning more about how and why Americans have demonized candy. As The Candy Professor, Dr. Kawash blogs about our sweet obsessions and, she told me, she’s working on a book-length study of candy in 20th-century America.

She pointed out that even high-quality candy is a relatively inexpensive treat, adding that “there’s undeniably something comforting about the sweetness.” Interestingly, there’s an inverse correlation between the health of our economy and candy consumption—candy sales rise in hard times and, in fact, many of our most popular brands, including Snickers (1930) and Three Musketeers (1932), were launched during the Great Depression. Dr. Kawash pointed out that for many adults, candy evokes nostalgia and a connection to a simpler time. Anyone old enough to remember the corner candy store will recall the delight in looking over the rows of colorful candies and trying to decide which were worthy of our pennies (and most of us remember a time when candy did indeed cost just pennies).

Not Such a Sweet Obsession

It’s not candy that is so unhealthy, Dr. Kawash told me, but rather our relationship with it.

By way of explaining, she gave me a few examples from her own life. “My mother didn’t allow candy in the house, and I spent my childhood trying to get it from friends,” she said, noting that being deprived of candy only made her want it all the more. Her professional interest in sweets as a social issue was stoked, she told me, when, as an adult, she offered some jelly beans to her daughter’s playmate. The child’s parents recoiled—and the father compared the candy to cocaine.

Dr. Kawash told me that she thought this was a very strange reaction from parents whose kitchen was stocked with plenty of sugar-loaded juices, snack bars and other sweet “foods.” Candy, at least, is straightforward, she said. “It’s sugar and it doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is—a tasty treat—and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Dr. Kawash believes that the real evil, in terms of our health, is all those other sugar-laden products on supermarket shelves that masquerade as healthy choices.

It’s Not So Bad…

Candy has been made the scapegoat for a host of diet-related health problems, said Dr. Kawash, but she believes this is simplistic. It’s true that candy contains sugar…and excessive sugar is unhealthy. But, said Dr. Kawash, “sugar is in a lot of things we eat—cereals, juices, breads, processed foods, soft drinks and energy bars. It’s easy to say, ‘Get rid of candy,’ without looking at where else sugar is coming from.” In examining why we see candy as being so harmful, Dr. Kawash told me that she often hears people make several incorrect or unsubstantiated claims—for instance…

It’s addictive. “The science of a link between sugar and addiction is murky,” she told me, noting that “cravings for sugar are not the same as cravings for nicotine or alcohol, which lead to a biochemical addiction.” A bit of sugar in a diet filled with nutritious foods will not lead to an “addiction.”

It rots your teeth. Yes, sugar can be bad for dental health, Dr. Kawash agreed, but so can a lot of other foods. She noted that the real problem is how long the food remains in your mouth—rinsing your mouth with warm water immediately after eating, or better yet, brushing your teeth within an hour or so is an obvious and easy solution.

It makes people hyper. There’s a lot of talk about how sugar makes people temporarily jittery and even makes children hyperactive, but not all scientists agree that there is a connection between sugar and hyperactivity. In fact, Dr. Kawash says, some scientific studies show that sugar may actually have the opposite effect, making you feel drowsy after the initial and brief sugar rush.

Guilty Pleasures

As adults, when we indulge ourselves in something pleasurable, our enjoyment often is tinged with guilt—but when it comes to enjoying candy in moderation, that guilt is neither necessary nor healthful, Dr. Kawash believes. In her opinion, we would do well to divest ourselves of the notion that certain foods are “good” while others are simply “bad.” Candy is meant to be savored, not to be gorged upon. If you want candy, go ahead and have some —just a bit, not a lot. Make it good candy—something that’s your favorite and is made of high-quality ingredients. Candy is one of life’s pleasures and, as such, it may be a delightful and entirely appropriate gift to offer your valentine!

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Source: Samira Kawash, PhD, a professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Date: February 10, 2011 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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