Sweets are terrible for you. Still, as per tradition, millions of Americans — and increasingly, many Australians — purchased hefty bags of the stuff over the weekend to hand out to trick-or-treaters and snarf when their loved ones weren't looking. Image: Wikimedia
For most of us, a handful of lollies is more than enough to satisfy the regretful craving. But what would happen if you only ate lollies, forever?
The short answer is, you'd die. But not before putting your body through a dozen different forms of hell.
Candy corn, a popular American lolly, is basically empty kilojoules: A mixture of corn syrup, honey and table sugar, plus some artificial colour, a dash of gelatin and a pinch of salt. A 19 piece, 140 calorie (586kj) serving of Brach's candy corn contains 0g of fat, 70mg of salt and 28g of sugar. Allen's Red Frogs are a little better - a serving of five contains 131 calories (548kj), 0g of fat and 13.2g of sugar.
Insofar as these substances could satisfy your daily energy requirements, you could absolutely live off them. To achieve a 2000 calorie (8368kj) /day diet, you'd need to eat about 14 servings of Brach's, or 271 individual pieces of candy corn. That's 400g of sugar per day, and pretty much nothing else. To live off Red Frogs, you'd need to eat about 15 servings, or 75 frogs. That's about 200g of sugar per day.
The obvious problem with this diet is malnutrition. You're consuming way too much sugar — the American Heart Association's daily recommended limit is 25g — and none of the other vitamins, minerals, proteins or fibres a healthy human needs.
"You'd probably develop scurvy, and all sorts of other wonderful nutritional deficiencies" Hans Plugge, a senior toxicologist at 3E Company, told me when I asked him what a pure lolly diet would do to a person.
Scurvy, a disease triggered by a lack of vitamin C, results in a general feeling of fatigue and malaise. Without treatment, scurvy can reduce the body's red blood cell count and lead to problems with wound healing. Eventually, a person with scurvy might die of infection or excess bleeding.
Plugge added that eventually, your bones would become weak and porous due to a lack of key minerals, and your muscles would start to waste from a lack of protein. Regarding the lack of fibre, "you'd probably have all sorts of GI problems," he said.
David Levitsky, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, says that protein deficiency would eventually do you in, but that it would take a long time. On average, if a person has water but doesn't eat at all, it takes him about a month to use up his body's excess energy reserves and starve.
"If you had sugar, it would prolong your life," Levitsky said. "It would depend how much protein you have [as muscle mass], but sugar would probably add a few more weeks."
For the aforementioned reasons, those few weeks would not be fun. A sugar-only diet would also lead to rapid tooth decay, and cause your blood glucose levels to spike and fall repeatedly, exacerbating your scurvy-induced fatigue. You'd probably be in a rotten mood.
I asked experts if you might develop diabetes. "That's a good question," Plugge replied. "Generally, I'd say only if you're predisposed. But eventually, if you keep eating large amounts of sugar and nothing else, yes, you will develop diabetes."
If you become diabetic, and you continue eating nothing but lollies, you may develop hyperglycemia, slip into a diabetic coma and die. Levitsky, however, is doubtful that this particular fate awaits a person who only eats enough sugar to satisfy his caloric needs. "Diabetes, hypertension and other [long-term] illnesses stem from eating too many calories," he said.
Of course, you could always end the misery early, by beasting a lethal dose of lollies. Last week, the American Chemical Society released an enlightening video (above) that shows us how to estimate that dose for our own bodies, by using sugar's LD-50 value. That's the quantity per kilo of a substance that should kill a subject, if ingested all at once.
An average American weighing 82kg would need to ingest over 1600 pieces of candy corn in one sitting to reach that lethal dose. An average Australian weighting 86kg would need to eat about 970 red frogs.
Here's a handy equation to figure out how much you need to eat, personally, with "W" representing your own weight in pounds (so you'll have to do a bit of unit conversion):
(W*13.5)/1.5 = Pieces of candy corn (W*13.5)/2.64 = Red frogs
To close out this macabre thought experiment, I'd like to offer readers a quick sanity check: No matter how much you think you enjoy eating sweets, your body almost certainly won't let you die from it.
"We have a very fundamental process that prevents us from eating the same food every day — it's called the monotony effect," Levitsky said. "If you only ate candy corn, I guarantee within 24 hours you'd want to eat anything else."