Kids look forward to Halloween all year. They obsess over their costumes, dwell on decorations, and plot how to bag as much candy as possible when they go trick-or-treating. Even though I’m very concerned about good nutrition, I love handing out chocolates to all of the little ghosts, witches, and princesses who come by.

After all, this one night of treats isn’t fueling America’s soaring obesity rate. It’s the daily consumption of sugary processed food sold by the food industry, and we shouldn’t let it trick us anymore.

Check out any loaf of bread, bottle of salad dressing, or even a package of Lean Cuisine Sesame Chicken tucked away in your freezer. You can probably find sugar listed as an ingredient, whether it’s sugar itself, or another form of it like high fructose corn syrup, honey, or brown rice syrup. (Hint: Any word ending in “ose” like “sucrose” or “fructose” is a sugar.) We don’t consider these foods to be treats, so why are they so full of sugar?

The other day, I looked at a “healthy” box of organic granola bars. They looked delicious! But the second ingredient listed on the label was “evaporated cane juice” and it wasn’t even the only form of sugar. The bars also contained something called “invert cane syrup” and molasses.



The food that’s marketed to kids is even worse, from sugary cereals to fruit snacks. Nowadays, food companies might add a token amount of whole grains or “real fruit” to these items, but adding whole wheat to cookies doesn’t magically turn them into health food.

For the real scandal, look in the beverage aisle. Between sodas, energy drinks, and sweetened juices and teas, we guzzle down nearly half of our national sugar consumption in liquid form.

After loading up on sugar from our meals, snacks, and beverages — not to mention our desserts — we try to figure out how to lose weight. Is the answer a special carb-free diet, or a superfood like pomegranate or acai? Even Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine frozen dinners can contain more than a third of the sugar you should eat in an entire day.

But a healthy diet isn’t mystical and doesn’t need to be elusive. The keys to wellness are easy to find. All it takes is consuming a variety of whole foods, mostly plant-based. Don’t pay top dollar for magical berries from the Amazon or the Himalayas. Just stick to grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and some animal products if you choose. And go light on the sugar.

Unfortunately, in our society, eating such a diet means going against the grain — or more accurately, going against the sugar. Read product labels as you walk through the grocery store and you’ll find sweet stuff in all kinds of unsuspected places. I put sugary jam on my peanut butter sandwiches, but do I really need more sugar in the bread I spread it on? Yogurt is a fantastic health food, but do I need to buy the kind that has as many grams of sugar as vanilla pudding?

Sugary junk is tasty and convenient, but that doesn’t make it food. Ask anyone with type II diabetes or another diet-related chronic illness: It’s way more convenient to develop healthy eating habits than get sick and have to recover. But for far too long, we’ve been tricked into thinking that the sugary products lining supermarket shelves are food we should eat all the time.

Nobody gets fat or sick from eating an occasional treat, or even binging on candy every Halloween. It’s the constant stream of sugar we consume in all of our food that harms our health. That is scary indeed.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords guest columnist Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore, a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board, and the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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