Homemade Candy Recipes: Low-Sugar, Vegan, & Gluten-Free Options
‘Tis the season to eat candy! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha. (See what I did there?) Sure, we all know that candy is loaded with sugar and empty calories that don’t provide us with much fuel at all. But, who cares? Are we really talking about eating healthy on Halloween?! Well, we're talking about eating DIY candy on Halloween... Candy is one of the undeniable joys of life. By all means, enjoy every piece of candy to the fullest! I know I will. As with many delicious-but-not-nutritious foods, we each have to decide what’s right for us and our bodies.
You may choose to not eat any candy at all on Halloween, or you may choose to go candy crazy—either way, the choice is yours! But, most candies today are more than just sugar bombs—they’re loaded with additives and artificial ingredients that aren’t real food, many of which can be harmful in large amounts. Really, candies are just another category of processed food. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I won’t be eating some…but it IS possible to enjoy candy that’s more clean and wholesome. If you’re looking for a less-processed indulgence this Halloween, I’ve got 5 DIY candy recipes that are made from all clean ingredients!
These are still CANDIES—meaning they’re sweet treats that should still be enjoyed in moderation—but without the additives and artificial ingredients. By making your own homemade candy, YOU are in control of the ingredients and the sugar content. Plus, these DIY candy recipes are lower in sugar than their store-bought counterparts, AND many of these are gluten-free and vegan candy recipes! Then, I'm sharing some basic information and resources about some of those questionable ingredients in the store-bought candies we know and love.
— DIY Candy Recipes —
Homemade Reese's: Pumpkin Peanut Butter Cups
Powdered peanut butter
Stevia/sweetener of choice
Get the recipe:
Per 1 homemade pumpkin peanut butter cup (mini size, ~1.5-inch diameter):
46 calories | 5g carbs | 3g fat | 1g protein | 2g sugars | 1g dietary fiber
- Only 2g of sugar per candy
- Use stevia/sweetener of choice
- Calls for actual dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao)
- 5 simple ingredients
- DOUBLE the sugar content!
- Sweetened with added sugars & dextrose
- Uses semi-sweet chocolate, which isn't actually "dark" chocolate
- 13 ingredients & additives!
Per 1 store-bought Reese’s Miniatures Dark Peanut Butter Cup:
44 cals | 4.8g carbs | 2.8g fat | 0.8g protein | 4g sugars | 0.5g dietary fiber
Ingredients in Reese’s Miniatures Dark Peanut Butter Cups
Can be gluten-free
Dairy-free chocolate chips
Creamy peanut butter
Get the recipe:
Per 1 DIY Butterfinger bar:
173 calories | 18g carbs | 11g fat | 4g protein | 11g sugars | 1g dietary fiber
- Made with maple syrup; can use fiber syrup for low-carb
- 60% less sugar per bar!
- Calls for dairy-free chocolate chips (I used the brand Enjoy Life, made from only 3 ingredients!)
- No artificial colors
- No preservatives
- 5 simple ingredients
- 1st ingredient is corn syrup, 2nd ingredient is sugar
- More than DOUBLE the sugar content!
- Made with cocoa, but no chocolate or cocoa butter, which legally & nutritionally is NOT REAL chocolate!
- Replaced natural fats in real chocolate with hydrogenated palm kernel oil, a.k.a. TRANS FATS, but label says 0g!
- 19 ingredients & additives!
Per 1 store-bought Butterfinger bar:
270 cals | 43g carbs | 11g fat | 4g protein | 28g sugars | 1g dietary fiber
Ingredients in a Butterfinger Bar
Dairy-free chocolate chips
Get the recipe:
Per 1 DIY Twix bar:
115 calories | 14g carbs | 7g fat | 1g protein | 10g sugars | 3g dietary fiber
- Uses maple syrup & dates for natural sweetness
- Can use fiber syrup for low-carb
- Cookie made of coconut flour for a gluten-free candy
- 6 simple ingredients
- Only 2g more of sugar, BUT made with sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, & artificial flavors
- Cookie made of refined flour: "enriched wheat flour"
- 21 ingredients & additives!
Per 1 store-bought Twix bar:
125 cals | 17g carbs | 6g fat | 1g protein | 12g sugars | 0.5g dietary fiber
Ingredients in a Twix Bar
DIY Cookies & Cream Bar
Sweetener of choice
Get the recipe:
Per ⅙ of a DIY Cookies & Cream bar (recipe yields 2 large bars):
223 calories | 7g carbs | 21g fat | 0g protein | 5g sugars | 2g dietary fiber
- Only 5g of sugar per serving!
- Made with maple syrup & sweetener of your choice
- Calls for coconut & cacao butter, for a vegan treat full of healthy fats
- 6 simple ingredients
- Almost QUADRUPLE the sugar content!
- Made with sugar, corn syrup solids, AND high-fructose corn syrup!
- Contains inflammatory vegetable oils & partially hydrogenated vegetable oil = TRANS FATS, even though label says 0g!
- 23 ingredients & additives!
Per 1 store-bought Hershey's Cookies 'N' Creme bar:
220 cals | 26g carbs | 12g fat | 3g protein | 19g sugars | 0g dietary fiber
Ingredients in a Hershey's Cookies 'N' Creme bar
DIY Almond Joy
Honey & Stevia
Dark chocolate chips
Get the recipe:
Per 1 DIY Almond Joy bar (fun-sized):
98 calories | 9g carbs | 7g fat | 1g protein | 4g sugars | 2g dietary fiber
- Only 4g of sugar per candy!
- Made with honey & stevia (or sweetener of your choice)
- Calls for dark chocolate (70% cacao+)
- Made with coconut oil
- No trans fats
- No artificial flavors/colors
- 8 simple ingredients
- TWICE as much sugar!
- 1st ingredient is corn syrup
- 2nd ingredient is sugar
- Made with milk chocolate
- Contains partially hydrogenated soybean AND palm oil, which = TRANS FATS, even though the label says 0g!
- 24 ingredients & additives!
Per 1 store-bought Almond Joy snack-size bar:
80 cals | 10g carbs | 4.5g fat | 0.5g protein | 8g sugars | 0.5g dietary fiber
Ingredients in an Almond Joy snack-size bar
— Ingredients to Watch Out For —
I’m the last person to tell you that you should never eat candy, because I still eat candy. But, I have to be honest with myself and admit that candy is not real FUEL and it’s not something that I should eat all the time. Candy is a treat, and I choose to enjoy it on occasion—not just because of the sugar content, but also because of those additives that my body really doesn’t appreciate.
For me, information is power, and knowing more about what’s really in the candies I enjoy helps me to practice moderation. That’s why I’m breaking down some of the common ingredients found in candies (specifically chocolate-based candies, like the DIY candies in this post), so we can better understand what we’re eating! Again, none of this is to suggest you should or shouldn’t eat candy. Ultimately, my hope is just to help you better understand what those candies are made of, beyond just sugar!
And, for a more in-depth breakdown of different types of Halloween candy, check out my Healthy Halloween Candy Choices video!
Types of Chocolate
There’s nothing inherently “bad” about chocolate itself. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, and cocoa beans do offer some nutrients and health benefits! (Check out my Is Dark Chocolate Healthy? video to learn more!) But, there are SO many different types of chocolate out there, and they’re classified based on their cocoa content:
- Unsweetened, brute, bitter: 85-100% (usually 99% or more)
- Bittersweet: 60-85%
- Semisweet: 33-60%
- Milk: 10%
- White: 0%
The problem is almost all types of chocolate include some added sugar, unless it’s 100% pure cacao, like a dark chocolate baking bar. Most candies out there are made from milk chocolate, which is mostly sugar with just a bit of cocoa. Also, even most store-bought candies with ‘dark chocolate’ on the label (like dark chocolate Reese’s) are made from semisweet chocolate—which is also mostly sugar with a bit more cocoa than milk chocolate, but not much. It’s not truly dark chocolate, it’s just dark-ER than milk chocolate.
For both milk chocolate and dark chocolate candies in the store, you’ll see the first ingredient listed is sugar (or corn syrup of some kind). To truly reap the benefits of dark chocolate, you need to be eating a variety that’s 70% cacao or more. This kind of dark chocolate is primarily cocoa and lists chocolate as its first ingredient! Sugar may be added to it, but it’s much more cocoa and much less sugar than you’ll find in store-bought candies. Because of this, I recommend using a dark chocolate that’s AT LEAST 70% cacao or more when you make your own DIY candies!
Oh, sugar, sweet sugar. In terms of the candies we’re talking about, there are a few types of sugar to be aware of:
- Sugar—also known as sucrose, a simple sugar molecule made of 50% glucose and 50% fructose
- Dextrose—a simple sugar made from corn, chemically identical to glucose just with a different name, used as an added sugar in processed foods because it’s affordable, also known by several other names, like “corn sugar”
- Corn Syrup—liquid sweetener derived from dextrose (so it’s made of all glucose), used in processed foods and drinks because it’s cheap
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)—derived from corn syrup, processed with enzymes to make a sweeter syrup with a higher percentage of fructose (55% to 65% fructose)
Basically, if you see any of these in the ingredients list on a label, it’s got added sugar in it! In most candies, you’ll see at least one of these names near the beginning of the ingredients list—if not listed first, as sugar tends to be the primary ingredient by weight in most candies. All of these kinds of sugar affect our blood sugar levels, our insulin levels, and even our cravings. While HFCS is the most-demonized ingredient in this bunch (with good reason), we still want to limit our intake of ALL added sugars and refined sugars.
We may choose to make Halloween a special exception to that rule, but what we eat regularly year-round matters more than what we eat on one day! There is SO much to say about sugar and different sweeteners—I recommend watching my Sugar & Sweeteners 101 video to better understand the basics!
If you know anything about trans fats, you probably know that they’re bad…really bad. So bad that trans fats are NOT even “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) for consumption by the FDA. Although margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated oils were all-the-rage in the 1950s—supposedly “healthier” than saturated fats like butter—we’ve found that conclusion was terribly wrong. As it turns out those trans fats (not saturated fats) are the major players in inflammation and chronic diseases like heart disease.
Trans fats are man-made fats, produced when vegetable oils are blasted with hydrogen (a.k.a. ‘hydrogenated’) to change them from a liquid to a solid form. These trans fats help the food stay fresh longer, as well as create the crispy, flaky, or moist texture in many processed foods. And, of course, they’re cheap. Unfortunately, even though most candies display “Trans Fat: 0g” on the label many of them still contain hydrogenated oils! This is because the FDA allows food manufacturers to put 0g trans fat on the label if the food contains less than 0.5g trans fat per serving. This is why it’s so important to read the ingredients list and look for ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils, or ‘shortening’!
Vegetable oils—like soybean, corn, canola, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower oils—are the most refined and highly processed of all oils. Because of this, they’ve been depleted of most nutrients and minerals, and many vegetable oils are processed using toxic chemicals. Worst of all, vegetable and seed oils are EXTREMELY high in omega-6 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs), which are linked to chronic inflammation and diseases. Most people in the U.S. consume far too many omega-6s and far too few omega-3s, and it’s having serious consequences on our health. Check out my Balancing the Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio blog to learn more about this!
In particular, one of the most common vegetable oils in processed foods—soybean oil—is also one of the most damaging, with additional potential health risks related to soy itself.
- Soybean oil is highly refined, full of omega-6s, and present in SO many processed foods, making it easy to over-consume.
- Also, soy is full of phytoestrogens, which can mess with our natural hormonal imbalance and lead to health problems—especially for women.
- In addition, the phytic acid in soy can make it more difficult for our body to digest some foods and absorb nutrients, leading to nutrient deficiencies.
There are lots of differing opinions about soy, and you ultimately have to decide what’s right for you and your body. In general, we could all afford to be more aware of the soybean oil and other vegetable oils that are lurking in processed foods!
Emulsifiers are basically compounds that help mix together substances that wouldn’t otherwise mix, like oil and water. There are MANY different emulsifiers out there that are used in processed foods to help make those foods more smooth and uniform. For now, we’re focusing on 2 emulsifiers that you’ll see often on the labels of chocolate candies:
- Soy lecithin—a byproduct from soy, often extracted from soybean oil. It’s GRAS as per the FDA, and there’s research out there stating soy lecithin’s benefits. But, there's also plenty of research revealing negative effects, like stomach and sensorimotor problems. Even though soy lecithin is used in very small amounts in most foods, it’s still made of soy. We’ll likely consume some soy lecithin in our processed foods and candies, we just don’t want it to be a major part of our diet.
- PGPR—also known as polyglycerol polyricinoleate, made from glycerol and fatty acids, typically derived from castor beans. PGPR has become common in chocolates because it’s a cheaper substitute for cocoa butter. It results in chocolate that’s lower in fat, but it also results in less-pure chocolate. This emulsifier is also GRAS by the FDA, it’s just not quite REAL food.
It’s possible to find chocolates out there without PGPR, they just tend to be a bit more expensive. But, most chocolate products—even dark chocolates and more expensive varieties—contain soy lecithin. It’s just a part of the chocolate world, at this point. If you’re concerned, you can find chocolate products that don’t use soy lecithin, like some 100% cacao unsweetened chocolate or baker’s bars. For dairy-free chocolate, I’m a big fan of the Enjoy Life brand that’s made from just 3 ingredients: cane sugar, natural chocolate liquor (non-alcoholic), non-dairy cocoa butter. No emulsifiers or additives!
There are LOADS of preservatives worth being aware of in processed foods, but one you’ll commonly find in chocolate is TBHQ, or tertiary butylhydroquinone. TBHQ is used to extend shelf life and protects food from discoloration. It’s found in instant noodles, crackers, frozen foods, and plenty of candies...as well as paints, varnishes, and skin care products. It’s also GRAS by the FDA, but it’s been associated with health problems like hyperactivity, liver enlargement, neurotoxicity—and just 5g of TBHQ would be a fatal dose. Again, we’re consuming TBHQ in tiny, trace amounts when we eat candies and most processed foods, but it’s something to be aware of!
Artificial Colors & Flavors
Let’s face it: most candies are bound to be chock-full of artificial colors and flavors. They’re also in plenty of cereals, drinks, yogurts, and even some brands of instant mac and cheese. What’s important to recognize here is that artificial flavors and colors are—plainly and simply—not real food. With artificial colors in particular, there have been numerous studies linking popular food dyes to health problems, ranging from allergic reactions to behavioral problems to cancer. Yet, artificial colors generally offer nothing to a food product in terms of its taste or nutritional value, but only serve to alter the appearance of food products.
One of the most common side effects associated with food dye consumption is hyperactivity and distractibility in children. The research behind this was definitive enough that, in 2010, in the European Union, most foods with artificial food dyes were required to have warning labels. The labels said the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Since that time, many European food manufacturers have voluntarily removed dyes from products. But, here in the U.S., we’re still going strong. So, when Halloween comes around, you’ll know it’s not just the sugar that can get kids bouncing off the walls!
It’s A LOT of information to process, and this is only the tip of the processed-foods iceberg. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, sometimes it gets me down. But, I truly believe that educating myself about foods, nutrition, and ingredients is the best way I can make healthy decisions for myself! Recognizing that candies are not REAL FOOD—in addition to being empty, sugary calories—makes it easier for me to practice moderation. When I’m armed with information, I feel more confident making choices about what “healthy” means, for ME. So, I will still eat some candy this Halloween…and I hope you find YOUR way to treat yourself, too!
Spooky Snacks for Halloween! Kid-Friendly Healthy Recipes