Whether they're dressed up as Lady Gaga or a vampire, kids in the midst of trick-or-treating quickly morph into zombies caught up in a feeding frenzy -- only their meal of choice is sugar rather than brains.
Dressing up, carving pumpkins and scaring people are all fun, but for most children, the point of Halloween is to amass as much candy as physically possible.
While parents may lament their children's unhealthful cravings, it might be harder than they think to stop them.
"We're built to like sweet things," said Dr. Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, where scientists investigate the complex mysteries of taste and smell.
The molecular receptors in taste cells that identify sugar are connected to the portions of the brain associated with pleasure, said Beauchamp. In fact, sugar "has direct pathways to some of the same systems that are involved in addictions to drugs."
So why don't adults raid drugstores for candy, or take to the streets in costume demanding their fair share of treats? Fortunately, the intense desire for sweetness seems to fade, at least a bit, as we age.
"It's been found repeatedly that children like higher amounts and higher concentrations of sweeteners than adults," he said.
For children, tasting something intensely sweet is so pleasurable it can even act as a pain reliever.
Scientists believe that children have these heightened cravings because sweetness is the best indicator of a high caloric content, and children need those extra calories for growth.
Today, when calories, especially empty ones, have never been cheaper, an artificial substitute that tastes just like sugar but lacks some or all of its caloric content may be the holy grail of the food industry.
Artificial sweeteners do interact with the sweet receptor -- it sends the same "this is sweet" message to the brain for all kinds of sweeteners -- but artificial sweeteners, especially at high concentrations, tend to interact with receptors for bitterness as well. The taste of artificial sweeteners also lasts longer, and for some reason people prefer sugar's shorter finish.
Sugar is special -- hence, Halloween.
Email China Millman at cmillman(at)post-gazette.com.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.