When my family relocated to the suburbs last year, I was encouraged by two things: living in a Pizza Hut delivery zone for the first time in over a decade and trick-or-treating.
My son has memorized our pizza delivery team's various catch phrases, so that's going well. But Halloween 2016 brought zero trick-or-treaters. Given our newfound proximity to Target, that meant we had a lot of leftover Halloween candy.
This year, I reasoned we would surely have more trick-or-treaters. And I couldn't give them that year-old candy that was hiding in my linen closet. So I loaded up again.
This year, when my own son mutinied because he had already trick-or-treated, the lone Belle who visited our house left with an overflowing candy bag. Even minus her haul, there's still a gallon bag full of 2017 candy next to the 2016 candy. Should we donate it? Hand it out to next year's unsuspecting trick-or-treater?
Many organizations encourage people to donate their candy, and this seems like a lovely sentiment. People who want candy get candy, freelancing moms make fewer trips to the candy bowl, and no one has to throw away stale candy. But is any of that candy actually in danger of going bad?
The easiest answer was to check for expiration dates, so I started there. But most of 2016's candy (Crispy M&Ms, Dum-Dums, Nerds, Skittles, Twix) didn't have expiration dates.
Last year's leftovers from that horrible Reese's mix with too many Fast Breaks and not enough Reese's Pieces did have "best by" dates: April 2017 for the Fast Breaks and August 2017 for the few remaining Peanut Butter Cups that had been hiding at the bottom of the bag.
This year's candy was a similarly mixed bag. Haribo's gummy mixes and the variety pack of M&Ms have no visible dates. The other candy covered a wide range of best by dates, from Swedish Fish (6/2018), to Peanut Butter Pumpkins (8/2018) to Kit Kats, the only candy in either year marked as good until the next year's Halloween (10/2018).
What accounts for all this variety in dates? It turns out that the FDA does not require expiration or best by dates on candy...or any food, for that matter. The only U.S. food product federally required to have an expiration date is infant formula.
There are some state laws for perishable items (milk, for example). Food manufacturers may choose whether or not to include an expiration or best by date on their packaging, and are likewise free to make that date determination by themselves.
Many companies voluntarily label their products, either with open dating or closed dating. It turns out that much of the candy I thought didn't have a date on it did have a date, just not one that I could recognize. The inscrutable string of numbers on a package can identify a date without presenting that date to the consumer.
Expiration dates (along with the much more confusing "best by" and "use by" dates) may not be reflective of food safety. That's probably especially true for many popular Halloween candies because sugar is such a good preservative. But product dating has been linked to food waste. One consequence of food dating, according to a 2013 joint report from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, is that consumers are likely to view products past their date as unsafe to eat. The report sites a number of surveys in which respondents indicated that they would immediately throw away any food past its date, whether that date was an expiration date, a best by date, or a sell by date, because they believed that consuming that product constituted a health risk .
I felt confident that my candy's "best by" dates were not indicative of food safety. But were the dates even reflective of food quality? It certainly seemed within the candy companies' best interest to ensure that their candy tasted good. Did candy past its date taste different from the candy still in its prime?
I sponsored a thoroughly unscientific taste test. The most accurate test would be a blind one, but I had to snack solo lest my son come in and ask why it was okay for me to eat candy in the middle of the day but not him. Still, the results should be reassuring to most parents with leftover candy:
Crispy M&Ms: 2016's candy is still crispy, still the worst of the M&M line and an unfortunate inclusion in mixed bags of Halloween candy. Trick-or-treat rating: totally fine if you don't like the neighbor kids.
Dum-Dums: Still hard, not a bit sticky. Trick-or-treat rating: good, especially if you still have butterscotch ones.
Nerds: Still a crunchy sugar rush. Trick-or-treat rating: worthy of skimming for mom's private candy stash.
Skittles: Still chewy and cloyingly fruit-like. Trick-or-treat rating: a dependable crowd pleaser safe for another year.
Twix: Harder, but still tasty. Trick-or-treat rating: They'll know you're passing out stale candy, but last year's Twix far surpass this year's Circus Peanuts.
The most accurate test would pit otherwise identical candy from 2016 and 2017, but given that my linen closet is already full of candy I could not justify the purchase of more candy. The peanut butter-based candies from 2016 were not identical to the 2017 versions (why on earth are there Reese's Pieces stuffed Peanut Butter Cups?), but close enough to make a more thorough comparison.
I tasted the 2016 Reese's Cup against the 2017 Reese's Pumpkin. When cut into, each candy looked nearly identical, saving the poor ratio of chocolate to peanut butter that makes the pumpkin an inferior candy. The cup had no discoloration or chocolate blooming that sometimes comes with older candy. But it tasted a bit...off, sort of like drinking a really funky red wine. It's not necessarily bad, but it's not what you're looking for at 2:00 in the afternoon. The peanut butter pumpkin tasted decidedly sweeter and nuttier.
Far more concerning than the taste was its after-effect. I've spent the last few hours with a metallic taste reminiscent of pine nut mouth, though it's unclear whether the old peanut butter or just the mountain of sampled candy is to blame.
My conclusion? Eat all the peanut butter filled candy immediately without remorse, for it will taste less good later. Save the straight sugar for a mid-winter pick me up, and feel no shame about reusing it next Halloween if it lasts that long.