The American Culture of Overindulgence: A Parenting Nightmare
The average American consumes an estimated 8 pounds of candy (3.7 kilograms) annually, with children eating even more. Sugar, the primary ingredient in candy, is generally derived from sugar cane, sugar beets and corn and can be crafted into endless different sizes, shapes, and textures to make delightful looking sweet treats that have been marketed to especially appeal to children. Candy and confections contain “added sugar” which still provides plenty of calories for energy, but they are known as ’empty calories’ because they provide no health benefits, and the body does not need them to survive. On the other hand, fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, and dairy products all contain natural sugar that provides the body with needed energy and nutrients for healthy functioning and survival. Consuming too much added sugar can increase the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and obesity, especially when consumed in excess from a young age, creating a stressful challenge in teaching moderation for concerned parents.
“Although candy and medicine look very different, there’s still strong associations that can be seen when looking down an aisle at a pharmacy today .”
Ironically, the first ever candy-making machine was invented in 1947 by a pharmacist by the name of Oliver Chase to churn out medicated candy lozenges. The association between candy and medicine has historical roots; back in the 18th century, an apothecary would prescribe sugar candy for certain ailments and took the “spoonful of sugar idea” literally by suspending unpleasant concoctions of herbs in sugar to make them easier to ingest. Although candy and medicine look very different, there’s still strong associations that can be seen when looking down an aisle at a pharmacy today: gummy vitamins, chocolate laxatives, and sugary cough syrups fill the shelves. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the confectionery industry took off. With the price of sugar falling after the Civil War and the rise of the new industrial machines at the end of the 19th century, candy became inexpensive, widely accessible and started to look more similar to how we know it today.
“Every holiday and special occasion seems to be surrounded by excess candy and sweet treats which can make teaching kids how to indulge in moderation very tricky.”
Every holiday and special occasion seems to be surrounded by excess candy and sweet treats which can make teaching kids how to indulge in moderation very tricky. The candy-centered holiday, Halloween has become a month-long celebration with constant events and reasons to give out an abundance of candy which then leads right into the Christmas season with endless cookies and treats which then turns right into Valentine’s Day then Easter and then starts all over again. This seemingly never-ending candy-filled cycle puts parents in an uncomfortable position when deciding how to handle their children’s sugar intake. On one hand they don’t want to “fetishize candy as the forbidden fruit” but also worry about how excessive sugar consumption may affect the health of their kids. In the US, sugary treats typically accompany celebrations and holidays but are also used to treat hardships and soften the blow of bad news. Although the sentiment of offering something sweet in times of celebration or loss is a meaningful gesture, the culture around overindulgence on every occasion, paired with the rampant diet culture can create unhealthy relationships with certain indulgent snacks. The unique experience children have with food and how their parents feed them when they are young can have major impacts on their relationship with diet and body image as they move into adulthood, making these years especially formative.
“It’s easy to demonize candy as strictly a guilty pleasure that cannot be considered real food … ”
Oftentimes, candy is a place where parents can hold a lot of their anxieties and worries about diet and their children’s eating habits. It’s easy to demonize candy as strictly a guilty pleasure that cannot be considered real food when in reality, the line becomes blurry once you start really looking at the nutrition labels of common foods deemed nutritious for kids. For example, a juice box contains more sugar than a lollipop, but juice is widely accepted as a nutritious beverage for children to consume on a regular basis. Although the sugar in fruit juice is “naturally occurring”, the nutritious and fiber-containing parts of the fruit (the skin and pulp) are left out, leaving behind concentrated sugars which the World Health Organization classifies as “free sugars,” just like the sugar in soda. Same goes for lots of store-bought granola bars, cereals, yogurts and most highly-processed snacks and drinks that are marketed to children as healthy and nutritious.
“… parents are put in a tough spot when it comes to feeding their children healthy, nutritious foods and teaching them how to indulge in moderation …”
All that to say, parents are put in a tough spot when it comes to feeding their children healthy, nutritious foods and teaching them how to indulge in moderation while also being careful not to shame them for eating candy. Fighting against cultural pressures to overindulge when there’s opportunity for it around every corner (lollipops at the doctor’s office, bowls of candy at school, birthday parties, tailgates, etc.) is an extremely difficult task. Added sugars found in candies, cakes, cookies, and other sweet treats can be enjoyed in moderation, but the culture of excess amongst children can make this especially difficult. Ultimately, celebrating holidays and occasions with candies and sweet treats is a special tradition that should in no way be diminished. The main issue lies in the frequency of these occasions where highly-processed candies and snacks are constantly being used as rewards and incentives for children to participate in events. There’s no harm in eating a little more candy on Halloween, it’s when Halloween levels of candy become a frequent occurrence that it may be a deeper societal or cultural red flag.
Juliette Frank is a recent UCLA graduate with a degree in Public Affairs and Food Studies. Her interests include the interrelation between food systems, digestive health, and the environmental impacts of food production. She believes the intersectionality of food has long been overlooked and is the key connection between the health of humans, animals, and the environment. She is passionate about reforming the food system as It is one of the most accurate determinants of the health inequities present in our society, making it one of the most effective places to start in healing the people and the planet from a long history of damage.