Blood, guts and ghouls might be the customary frights at Halloween, but the real horror is inside your plastic jack-o-lantern. Sugar, especially the refined white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup that lurks in your treats, has been linked to health problems from obesity to osteoporosis to some cancers and heart disease.
Of course, sugar isn't the only thing to fear -- a potentially scarier bogeyman is the hydrogenated oil contained in snacks from Abba-Zabas to Zagnuts. Hydrogenation is used to help solidify liquid oil; the process gives food a longer shelf life and can create a nicer texture than using natural oils. But hydrogenation also produces trans fats, which raise cholesterol and can lead to heart disease.
And then there are candy's garish colors, often made from potentially dangerous dyes. Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Blue 2 have been connected with cancer. Americans eat heaping helpings of these dyes; in 2005 we ate 17.8 million pounds, according to the Feingold Association, a nonprofit that aims to help people eat more healthfully.
Of course, that means we're eating even bigger heaps of candy. The U.S. Census Bureau says Americans eat an average of 25 pounds of candy each per year (primarily from trick-or-treating!). We would never spoil Halloween by telling you to stay away from the sweet stuff, but we wanted to remove some of the frightful ingredients from a few favorites while keeping flavor and ease. Here are two Plenty-approved recipes that you can whip up in your own kitchen.
Peanut butter cups
Our aim was to replace the emulsifiers and preservatives in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with all-natural ingredients, including a luscious dark chocolate.
1 pound organic, fair-trade bittersweet, semisweet, or milk chocolate, chopped
2 cups natural or organic salted peanut butter
1/4 cup organic powdered sugar
Mini-muffin liners or petit-four cups
1) First, temper* the chocolate, which will give it a glossy sheen and keep it from turning white as it cools.
2) Place 3/4 of your chopped chocolate into a bowl set over a small saucepan of barely simmering water.
3) Bring the heat up to 113 degrees (Fahrenheit), remove the saucepan and bowl from the heat, and stir, slowly adding the reserved chocolate until it reaches anywhere between 82 and 86 degrees.
4) Put the bowl back onto the now warm but not simmering saucepan of water and let it warm to between 88 and 91 degrees.
5) Place a wire rack over a sheet of wax paper. Working one at a time, fill each muffin cup with melted chocolate.
6) Then pour the chocolate back into the bowl, leaving just enough in the cups to coat the sides and bottom.
7) Place the cups upside down on the wire rack and allow chocolate to set, about ten minutes (this will create hard shells into which you’ll pour the peanut butter mixture).
8) Meanwhile, thoroughly mix the peanut butter and powdered sugar.
9) Spoon the peanut butter mixture into the hardened chocolate shells almost to the top. Drizzle melted chocolate on the tops to fill and allow to set for one hour.
Makes about four dozen mini cups.
*Or try this quicker, alternative tempering process: Microwave the chocolate at 50 percent power until the top layer has started to melt, about 1- 2 minutes. Let sit for 30 seconds, then stir; let sit again, and repeat this process until the chocolate is smooth and melted.
Brach's candy corn contains 11 ingredients, four of them sugars. Our version requires just five ingredients and uses full-flavored honey rather than high-fructose corn syrup.
1/4 cup organic unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon organic vanilla
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup organic honey
3-4 cups organic powdered sugar, plus an extra cup or so for rolling
Natural food coloring (optional; the powdered kind works best)
1) Combine butter, vanilla, salt and honey in a food processor. With the processor running, slowly add powdered sugar until the mixture balls up and slowly turns around the processor bowl.
2) Sprinkle a counter with powdered sugar and knead the mixture, as with bread dough, until it's no longer sticky and firm enough to hold its shape.
3) Divide the mixture into three balls. Using a toothpick as an applicator, put a small amount of yellow food coloring into one ball. Knead the color through, adding more powdered sugar if it becomes sticky. Depending on the humidity, you may need to add up to a cup more sugar to achieve the right consistency. The dough should feel pliable, but not gooey. Repeat the process on a second ball with orange food coloring (or a mixture of yellow and red). Leave the last ball white.
4) Working with one color at a time, break off a section of dough and roll it into a long rope about 1/4" in diameter. Line up each rope side-by-side with yellow on one end, orange in the middle and white at the top, pressing together gently to make a tricolored log.
5) Slice into pieces about 1/8" to 1/4" thick, and use your fingers to shape into triangles.
Candy corn is ready to eat immediately, but improves if allowed to set overnight. Makes about one pound.
Story by Monique Cuvelier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in October 2009.