This Halloween, Americans will purchase 90 million pounds of chocolate, and the average child will consume 3,190 calories of sugar from trick-or-treating alone. It sounds like a recipe for diabetes, but, in fact, the connection between sugar consumption and diabetes is tenuous and strung with caveats. So figuring out how many cases of diabetes are caused by our yearly candy binging ritual is nigh impossible. Nigh.
The bottom-line? Fatherly’s back-of-the-napkin estimate suggests that, if a child ate one package of Starburst Fruit Chews (or one can of soda) each day as a direct result of Halloween, that could increase his or her risk of diabetes by as much as 26 percent, costing the U.S. economy hundreds of thousands of dollars per child diagnosed. (Ironically, this must be taken with a grain of salt.)
Here’s how we figure:
How Much Sugar Do Our Kids Actually Eat On Halloween?
We can’t be sure, but it’s a lot. One British study found that the average child consumes 3,190 calories as a result of trick-or-treating, so let’s go with that figure and apply some elbow grease. One package of Starburst Fruit Chews contains 240 calories and 34 grams of sugar, so the average kid eats the caloric equivalent of about 13 Starburst packages on Halloween. That gives us 442 grams (or about 1 pound) of sugar which, tragically, sounds about right.
Now, that’s probably not enough to cause acute damage. The American Chemical Society once calculated that it would take 5.4 lbs of sugar — about 262 fun-sized candy bars — in one sitting for a 180-lb American to be at serious risk of a lethal sucrose overdose. But, in the long-term, an extra 442 grams of sugar added to a child’s diet every October 31 could prove damaging.
How Much Sugar Does It Take To Increase The Risk Of Diabetes?
An extra 39-78 grams of sugar per day. At least, that’s what one study of type 2 diabetes found. Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of eight prospective studies that, together, included 310,819 participants and 15,043 cases of type 2 diabetes. They found that participants in the highest category of sugar-sweetened beverage intake (1-2 soda can, or between 39 and 78 grams of sugar per day) had a 26 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
So here our adventure ends. Even if we assume that American children wolf down 442 grams of sugar on October 31, there’s no reason to believe that they’ll develop diabetes from one wild night of candy eating as long as they maintain healthy diets for the other 364 days of the year. And even if they were to hoard their candy and eat it over the course of the year, that’s barely an extra gram per day of sugar — not the sort of thing that registers as an increase in diabetes risk.
A Sugary Deus Ex Machina
But it seems a shame to end our quest here. So, for the sake of an argument, let’s say one child was so hooked on the Halloween sugar rush — those 13 Starburst packages that we mentioned earlier — that he or she started eating one package of Starbursts per day. That would be a daily increased intake of 34 grams of sugar per day and, in theory, could put this child at a 26 percent increased risk of diabetes. We’re not saying that’s happening routinely (although there certainly are an uncomfortable number of children consuming one soda can per day). And we’re certainly not saying that a 26 percent is a whole lot of increased risk (keep in mind that the baseline risk for type 2 diabetes is about 10 percent, so a 26 percent increased risk simply means that this number jumps to 14 percent). But just for fun — how much would it cost us if that happened?
How Much Does A Single Case Of Diabetes Actually Cost?
About $130,000 over the course of a patient’s lifetime. Specifically, data from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine suggests that type 2 diabetes in older patients who are diagnosed in their 50s cost the economy about $85,000, while diabetes in younger patients who will live longer and have yet to contribute fully to the workforce will cost more like $130,000. On a larger scale, one study found that the total estimated costs of diabetes in 2012 was $245 billion — $176 billion in direct medical costs and $69 billion in reduced productivity.
That should put an extra daily can of soda (or Starburst package) into perspective.
So Does Halloween Cause Diabetes, Or What?
In a word, no. Most children don’t eat enough candy on Halloween to cause any acute damage (besides a belly ache), and they simply don’t nab enough sweets to provide them with an entire year of the sort of daily sugar consumption that studies suggest increases diabetes risk. And, to be perfectly honest, even if a particularly enterprising child got a hold of 365 Starburst packages and ate one per day as a direct result of Halloween each year, the holiday would only bump that child’s risk of diabetes from 10 percent to 14 percent. Never mind that the lion’s share of diabetes diagnoses are less about sugar consumption and more about genetics and lifestyle choices.
That said, Halloween does teach kids to fetishize candy and gives them the angriest of angry fixes. The holiday may not do immediate damage, but that doesn’t make it one of the causes of childhood diabetes and problematic eating habits among older children.
It’s worth noting that Halloween has health benefits as well. If the average 14-year-old boy walks five miles while trick-or-treating, he’ll burn nearly 500 calories — more if he’s weighed down by multiple bags of processed sugar.