Every year, millions of kids go to houses for ubiquitous trick-or-treating. To ensure what’s put into each trick-or-treater’s bag is a safe treat when eaten, Alexis Hamilton, an assistant professor of food processing microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life SciencesDepartment of Food Science and Technology, has some tips and tricks.

“Being aware of how to safely consume or store your Halloween goodies can help ensure your holiday is all treats and no tricks,” Hamilton said. “Most of the commercial candy products you’ll see handed out this year are safe to consume and store for several months after trick-or-treating, but homemade candies and treats require a little extra scrutiny. These treats typically won’t last as long as your store-bought favorites.” 

Candy that is handed out to those in eerie-sistible costumes has a decent shelf life, with some candies lasting for up to two years at room temperature. Hamilton suggests the following safety recommendations based on the National Confectioners Association

  • Chocolate - all chocolate is made of cocoa butter and/or cocoa powder, and the fats in chocolate normally oxidize over time when exposed to oxygen, causing it to become stale or causing off-odors and flavors. The higher the cocoa content, the longer the product will last, so dark chocolate has a much longer quality shelf life than white chocolate. Dark chocolate can be kept for one to two years if wrapped in foil and stored in a cool, dark and dry place, such as a pantry or basement. Milk and white chocolate have a more limited storage time — no more than 8-10 months.

  • Hard candy - hard candies can last up to a year when stored at room temperature or in a cool, dry location.

  • Jellied candies - if the packaging has been opened, soft candies should be stored away from heat and light at room temperature of about 70 degrees. Stored in this manner, the candy should last 6-9 months. If the packaging has not been opened, soft sweets will last approximately 12 months.

  • Candy corn - if the packaging has been opened, candy corn should be stored under the same conditions as soft candies and will last approximately 3-6 months. Unopened packages will last about 9 months.

  • Gum - as long as the packaging remains sealed, most gum products have a shelf life of 6-9 months. To maximize freshness, keep chewing gum packages in a cool, dry place and out of any direct sunlight.

  • Caramel - caramel treats should be kept covered, away from heat and light at room temperature. Stored properly, caramel should last 6-9 months and even up to 12 months in some cases.

As a rule of thumb, Hamilton said that partially eaten or opened candies should be stored in containers that protect the candy from contamination, whether in plastic storage bags or airtight containers, in order to increase its shelf life. 

Homemade Halloween sweets, though, are best enjoyed shortly after concocted in the kitchen, such as caramel- or candy-coated apples, crispy rice treats, fudge, and more, Hamilton said.

“For items that are fully cooked to their crunchy and sticky best, these usually last at room temperature for anywhere from four to seven days,” Hamilton said. “Coated apples are a risk if partially eaten and not kept in the fridge. These can be safely enjoyed for up to four days after partially eating them and storing in a refrigerator. If you want to enjoy a candy apple on a stick, consider waiting to insert the stick until right before you intend to eat them or (if making in advance), store them in the refrigerator. Of course, these storage recommendations are only a factor if these aren’t gobbled up before they even make it to a container.”

Properly made fudge can be stored at room temperature for up to a week. Fudge, along with coated apples, jams or jammy-candies, and some fondant or cream-based candies could benefit from the added shelf-life of storing in the fridge, according to Hamilton, along with any candy that is partially eaten. Homemade food items – including those in the fridge – should all be kept in airtight containers.

There are some easy ways to tell if items have gone bad, Hamilton says. 

  • Off-odors or off-flavors.

  • If something fuzzy is growing, don’t eat it.

  • If a sealed package looks bloated, don’t eat it. The bloating likely means something is growing inside, especially if the package is pressed on and the bloating returns.

  • A recommendation as old as Dracula himself is when in doubt, throw it out.

If candy is left out to melt and stored in the fridge to resolidify, it is still generally safe to eat even if it looks like Frankenstein.

About Hamilton

Alexis Hamilton is an assistant professor of food processing microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life SciencesDepartment of Food Science and Technology. Her research focus is identifying evidence-based approaches to enhance food safety while preserving quality for food manufacturers. This includes evaluating novel management strategies in production and storage environments to validate their effects on foodborne pathogens and product quality, designing improved cleaning and sanitation regimens in food processing environments to control foodborne pathogens, particularly in the absence of hygienic design, and examining the changing microbiome and functional dynamics within food production and storage environments to enhance safety and preserve quality.


To schedule an interview with Alexis Hamilton, contact Margaret Ashburn in the media relations office at mkashburn@vt.edu or 540-529-0814.


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