While ghosts and goblins ringing your doorbell on October 31 may be gleefully frightful, Halloween candy can be downright scary for the nearly 25 million Americans with gluten intolerance. A protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and cross-contaminated oats, gluten lurks unnoticed in most common candies.

For those with a sensitivity or intolerance, eating gluten may result in digestive distress, fatigue, rashes, or any number of seemingly unrelated symptoms, plus intestinal damage leading to nutrient malabsorption and compromised immunity. Whether you’re the parent of a gluten-free child or simply want to be a good neighbor while handing out treats, here are tips on how to make Halloween fun for everyone.

Before Halloween

Here’s where prep pays off. “Give yourself plenty of time to get kids’ input on preferred candy and verify its safety beforehand,” says Nancy Patin Falini, RD, author of Gluten-Free Friends (Savory Palate, 2003) and a consultant to the Celiac Center at Pennsylvania’s Paoli Hospital, serving people who have the autoimmune disorder triggered by eating gluten. (For kids with celiac disease, even trace amounts of gluten pose a danger to their health.)

One shortcut: If wheat or spelt is an ingredient in any packaged food, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that the words “Contains: Wheat” appear at the bottom of the ingredient list.

However, “beware of chocolate and chocolate bars that are flavored with barley malt, another source of gluten,” says Shelley Case, RD, author of The Gluten-Free Diet (Case Nutrition Consulting, 2008). A quirk in the law doesn’t require the wheat warning for barley malt or rye, even though they contain glutenlike proteins that can trigger reactions. Barley malt, rye, and oats (which may be contaminated by wheat) will appear in the ingredient list, though, so read labels carefully. If necessary, contact the manufacturer to verify your selected candy’s content.

Because of increased demand, many natural grocery stores now stock dedicated gluten-free sections; if you haven’t seen one for Halloween in years past, make the suggestion early in the month, and give them a list of candies they can include.

Once you’ve collected gluten-free goodies, take a stash to designated neighbors so your child can have the fun of trick-or-treating without worry; describe your child’s costume to the neighbor so the safe treat gets into the right hands. If you buy bulk gluten-free goodies, prepackage them yourself and emphasize to neighbors the importance of keeping them separate from other candy to avoid cross-contamination. And just this once, discourage all sharing among kids as they go around the neighborhood; candy that is safe for one child may be perilous for another.

Halloween at home

If trick-or-treating isn’t part of your celebration plans, organize a home party that shifts the focus from candy to games, prizes, and costumes—a classic approach for allergy-sensitive families. Serve a gluten-free supper, such as homemade chicken fingers or pizza; or try Applegate Farms’ new gluten-free chicken nuggets and Amy’s gluten- and dairy-free pizzas. For dessert, make individual cookies and cupcakes from gluten-free mixes.

If you’re doing a potluck, expect that kids may attend who have other allergies or sensitivities. Plan the menu ahead of time and have all parents clearly label each dish; handle and place each item strategically during the party to avoid cross-contamination. If you have a child or guest with a severe allergy, have an action plan ready and posted so everyone knows what to do in case a child accidentally ingests the wrong food.

After Halloween

Time to examine the loot. Check each piece of candy with your child “to reinforce the importance of reading labels, each and every time,” says Falini. “Kids should be taught to read labels as soon as possible and to always ask a responsible adult for help when in doubt about eating a particular food.”

If you don’t have the original bag or can’t find ingredient information on the treat, toss it and offer to buy it back in exchange for a book, toy, privilege, or experience, such as a new movie or other outing. In addition to safeguarding gluten-free kids, doing a trade-out reduces sugar consumption and places the emphasis on having fun—which is the spirit of Halloween at its best.

Gluten-free natural candies for Halloween

  • Crispy Cat bars
  • Ian’s Cookie Buttons (selected flavors)
  • GoNaturally organic hard candies
  • Let’s Do...Organic gummy bears and black licorice
  • Pure Fun candies
  • St. Claire’s organic candies
  • Stretch Island fruit leather
  • Tropical Source chocolate bars
  • YummyEarth organic lollipops

Note: Be sure to read labels every time you make a purchase. Some products or flavors within brands may not be gluten free.

Gluten-free party foods

If you’re baking gluten-free Halloween goodies such as cookies or cupcakes, try Bob’s Red Mill mixes (bobsredmill.com); Glutino snacks and mixes (glutino.com); and Pamela’s Products mixes and cookies (pamelasproducts.com). All receive rave reviews from the gluten-free community, are easy to purchase at most health foods stores, and allow cooks to prepare treats without other allergens, such as dairy, nuts, or eggs. If you’re short on time, Enjoy Life (enjoylifefoods.com) offers ready-to-eat cookies and bars free of eight major allergens: wheat, dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, and fish.