Candy isn’t just for kids — American adults manage to eat about 7.5 pounds per year, according to past research. That’s a huge amount, considering that the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to just 25 grams (g) or less per day for women and 36 g or less for men.
The large amount of candy that so many Americans eat on a regular basis is concerning because there’s a direct link between sugar consumption and chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, according to a previous study.
As a registered dietitian-nutritionist, however, I also understand the science behind why humans love sugar so much. When we eat sugar, our bodies naturally release the “feel good” hormone, dopamine, as described by Psychology Today. And, yes, dietitians eat candy! It’s just a matter of finding the best types and a balanced way to incorporate them into your generally healthy diet.
Today, there are plenty of brands that claim to offer “healthier” options for indulging a sweet tooth — some by cutting back on calories and added sugar, others by adding nutrients like fiber, and/or by using organic or allergen-free ingredients. While more accessible than they’ve been in the past, these options are still not as easy to find as traditional candy. They also tend to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts — in some cases, twice as much per serving.
So is seeking out and paying more for so-called healthier candy worth it? Here is how six popular brands stand up nutritionally and what you need to know about them.
This brand makes an array of non-chocolate options — jelly beans, gummy bears, lollipops, even a healthified version of candy corn for fans (hi, Mom!) — that are free from the top eight food allergens, as well as artificial dyes and GMOs. This is great news for anyone with a food allergy, since traditional candy bars almost always contain one of the major allergens, such as wheat, soy, dairy, or nuts. Just don’t expect this candy to be very different nutritionally from more readily available and affordable counterparts.
Take the YumEarth Fruit Chews as an example. For just over 1 ounce (oz) of candy, both YumEarth and Starburst fruit chews have the exact same 16 g of added sugar. The ingredients lists are strikingly similar as well. While YumEarth does feature certified organic ingredients, those ingredients are still just fancy names for sugars and saturated fats (organic rice syrup, organic cane sugar, organic palm oil), so don’t be fooled by the “health halo.” You still need to consume these candies in moderation.
Related: 12 Potential Signs You’re Eating Too Much Sugar
This brand offers a wide variety of gummies, including vegan-friendly options, with the promise of significantly less sugar than traditional varieties. When you read “sugar-free” or “low-sugar” on a food label, however, that often means that the sugar has been replaced with something else, likely an artificial sweetener. In this case, allulose and stevia are used. While stevia has been around for a while as a plant-derived sweetener, its approval in commercial products is still relatively new and research is still being done on its safety and effectiveness, per the FDA. Allulose is a newer sweetener as well, and research is ongoing. Additionally, these sweeteners won’t have the same flavor as sugar and may take some time to get used to. But it is important to note that, just like eating too much sugar, consuming too many artificial sweeteners on a regular basis has been linked to potential negative health effects, according to Harvard.
The other thing to note about this brand is that it adds plant-derived fiber to its products. The extra fiber can help blunt the effects of sugar on blood glucose, although it’s definitely better to get your sugar and fiber fix naturally from a piece of fruit. Still, SmartSweets Red Twists deliver 40 g of total carbohydrates, including 12 g of fiber and just 2 g of sugar (none added sugars) compared with the 27 g of carbohydrates and 16 g of added sugar and zero grams of fiber in an even smaller serving of strawberry Twizzlers.
This innovative line of chocolate bars, nut butter cups, and candy-coated chocolate “gems” (think M&Ms) claims to be made with 51 percent less sugar than the leading competitor’s brand and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or artificial colors. It even manages to sneak in some crisped quinoa for crunch and plant-based protein.
Still, the nutritional profile isn’t terribly exciting. While Unreal does use organic cane sugar in its ingredients, your body won’t know the difference between organic and conventional sugar, and the amount is comparable to what’s in traditional candy. The Dark Chocolate Crispy Quinoa Gems, for example, contain 140 calories, 5 g of saturated fat, and 15 g of added sugar in about 1 oz; Dark Chocolate M&M’s contain only one more gram of added sugar per ounce.
Related: Can Dark Chocolate Improve Your Immunity?
4. Surf Sweets
These gummy candies — worms, bears, and fish — are sweetened with organic cane sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup, but really, both forms of sugar are metabolized the same way and have the same effect on your body. Surf Sweets DelishFish pack 100 calories and 16 g of added sugar per serving compared with the 110 calories and 23 g of added sugar you’ll find in Swedish Fish. To be fair, Swedish Fish doesn’t list high-fructose corn syrup among its ingredients either. If you enjoy the flavor of DelishFish better, then go for it, but if not, they may not be worth the premium price tag. It is worth mentioning that Surf Sweets does donate 1 percent of its proceeds to help clean up the ocean, so you can certainly feel good about that if this is your candy of choice.
This nut butter purveyor’s chocolate-covered cups have a cultlike following and use only organic ingredients. Justin’s products are also certified gluten-free, which is perfect for anyone with celiac disease and those who follow a strict gluten-free diet. One place where Justin’s certainly does win out is in its ingredients list: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups contain tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ), which increases shelf stability. But past research has also linked tBHQ to possible carcinogenic effects. While the exact mechanism and dose response aren’t yet fully understood, it’s best to limit this ingredient as much as possible. Unfortunately, Justin’s peanut butter cups remain high in calories, unhealthy saturated fat, and added sugars (16 g, although that’s less than the 20 g in Reese’s). Justin’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups contain 7 g of saturated fat per pack compared with 4.5 g of saturated fat in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Related: The Best Types of Candy for People With Diabetes
6. Ocho Organic
This organic, fair-trade chocolate and caramel brand uses only gluten-free and non-GMO ingredients, and has vegan options. Even so, its bars are pretty indulgent.
The Ocho Organic Dark Chocolate Coconut Bars are vegan but contain 210 calories, 9 g of saturated fat, and 14 g of added sugar in one serving. When compared with their closest counterpart, Mounds, they’re actually higher in calories and saturated fat and contain a similar amount of sugar per serving. Not exactly the news I was hoping for either!
At the end of the day, even “healthy” candy bars aren’t good for you. If a certain brand of candy is your favorite, indulge in moderation and savor every bite. Unless you’re looking for a product that is allergen-free, gluten-free, or low in sugar because of a specific health condition, the brands listed above may not be worth the hefty price tag. Opt for a fun-sized candy that you truly enjoy whether it’s on this list or not and keep your consumption to a minimum. Too much sugar isn’t good for anyone, but neither is completely eliminating your favorite treats from your diet.