February 27, 2009

Does sugar make kids hyper?

Apparently not:
Nearly everyone has always accepted the belief that sugar makes kids hyperactive; in fact it's so deeply ingrained that even some researchers have had trouble accepting their own results. In one study, 35 children reported by their mothers to be "behaviorally sugar sensitive" were separated into two groups. Half were told they were given a sugary drink, half were told it was a sugar-free drink. Then the mothers played with the children and were individually interviewed. Overwhelmingly, mothers who were told their child was given sugar rated their behavior as hyperactive. In fact, all children received the same sugar-free drink. In this case, the perceived affect was confirmation bias by the mothers — where they picked up only on cues that supported their pre-existing conviction.

Another similar study found that 50 children whose mothers "knew" that their children's behavior was worsened by sugar were given a blinded test where the children were given either sugary or a sugar-free drink, and then observed — but this time the mothers didn't know which was which. No differences between the groups could be ascertained over three separate trials. And the lack of an effect extends to classroom performance, too. 16 hyperactive boys were given controlled diets of either sugar drinks or sugar-free drinks at measured intervals throughout two school days and were regularly given behavioral and cognitive tests. Again, there was no difference in performance between the groups.

Biochemically, the claim doesn't make sense for normal healthy children. The amount of sugar in the blood is carefully regulated by insulin. Whether you eat a lot of sugar or none at all should make no difference to your blood sugar level.


Host with the Most said...

The blood sugar level is irrelevant to the study.

WOW! They studied 50 kids!


That's sure as hell conclusive.

Who ran this test - global warming researchers?

The time in history when there is more information available to everyone than ever before and yet ignorance and stupidity - in SCIENCE! - are on the rise.

Molly said...

I don't have kids, so don't shoot me, but I think it's plausible that a child's behavior might be perceived as hyperactive only after consuming sugar. The inevitable sugar crash seems like a bigger problem.

Original Mike said...

Nearly everyone has always accepted the belief that sugar makes kids hyperactive

Speak for yourself, bub. In fact, this has been known for quite some time. But since science information has to pass through journalists (who are about the most scientifically illiterate people on the planet) to get to the public, the public was ill informed.

T. Boone Chickens said...

I tend to hear parents commenting on the effect of sugar on children mostly at events like birthday parties, at Halloween, after the Easter Egg hunt etc. In other words, when kids are in a group setting and have other reasons to be hopped up.

20 kids running around screaming and acting like maniacs after bursting a pinata at a party or after gorging on cake would probably be just as crazy regardless of the sugar. That's what these studies appear to say to me.

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deirdre Mundy said...

On the other hand, they HAVE proven that the red dye in Hawaiian punch makes people insane.

I COULD imagine a connection between healthy breakfast and attentiveness--simply because a healthy breakfast sticks with you longer, and

LOW BLOOD SUGAR makes kids insane. Apparently, when they're hungry, they can't focus... weird, huh? Not lieke adults at all!

Another reason parents may BELIEVE sugar makes kids hyper is because the situations where they get massive amounts of sugar (parties, circuses, carnivals, etc.) tend to be the same situations that kids find exciting.....

Noone gives their kids tons of cookies and icecream before...say... "toilet bowl scrubbing time"

Corn syrup DOES change my child's behavior. But so does corn on the cob. Hives will do that to a person......

Deirdre Mundy said...

Sorry, T Boone and Reader.... our posts crossed in the mail, didn't mean to repeat....

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SteveR said...

Well "hyperactivity" as judged by parents is not exactly like measuring the straight line distance between two point.

Freeman Hunt said...

The inevitable sugar crash seems like a bigger problem.

I agree. I wouldn't expect the kids to act differently right after consuming the sugar, but I bet if you feed a kid a bunch of sugar, without significant protein or fat to buffer the effect, the kid is going to be irritable later on when the sugar crash sets in and makes him tired. A lot of kids get hyper when they're tired.

Tibore said...

"Host with the Most said...
The blood sugar level is irrelevant to the study.

WOW! They studied 50 kids!


That's sure as hell conclusive."


What's wrong with that number? Not all studies can get huge numbers of participants. So researchers take what they can get, record what they discover, and let it go into journals where eventually similar studies aggregate to the point where a meta-study can reveal the trends over large numbers.

I'm sorry, but I just don't see why you object here. Yes, 50 is not a lot, and you cannot draw definitive conclusions from it, but individual studies are never meant to be definitive conclusions to begin with. Rather, they're meant to be building blocks in the overall discipline. It's the same issue with (to choose two separate ongoing studies) research into homeopathic treatments efficacies, and autism/vaccine supposed links: Many studies just don't have large numbers, so the researchers do what they can. Eventually there's enough snowballing to where overall trends can be discerned, but you gotta start small.

Henry said...

My kids were up early this morning. Crazy active. Sugar? No. It was because they are going to their grandma's tomorrow.

What do they get at grandma's? Sugar!

* * *

Adding to the comments above, I don't disagree with the study, but it's examining the wrong thing.

Sugar doesn't make kids hyper. Sugar makes them greedy. Greed makes them hyper.

George M. Spencer said...

T. Boone and others have it right....it's the birthday party excitement that gets the kids revved, not the sugar.

Sugar hysteria is a classic New Age mommie lunacy.

Lots of parents are obsessed with their children in ways parents were not 30, 40 years ago. If more mothers were spending more time scrubbing floors and milking cows, they would not have time for such foolish beliefs, which only sends them scurrying to Whole Foods to buy over-priced organic fungus wafers.

Group events also freak out some parents because they never ever see (or let) their kids play in roving gangs of window-breaking, screaming, muddy, acorn-and-rock throwing, beating, jumping, falling off the bicycle gashing the knees, tackling, roughhousing marauders. Neighborhood mayhem simply does not exist in many places. Schools reinforce sedentaryness by grossly restricting how children play during recess. I'd hate to be a child today.

traditionalguy said...

This must be the famous "mother is cold, so you have to put on your coat." thinking pattern. The parents need to face facts. Their kids have become active,aggressive people and their kid's diet is not to blame and cannot re-control them. That's a scary world without any "reason" to excuse bad behaviors from their little angels.

Paul said...

This study struck me as flawed. I don't doubt that the researchers were correct in suggesting that parental perceptions of their childrens' behavior are not always accurate. But the study's design embodied assumptions that I don't think are justifiable, so that in the end it is unable to say much of interest.

Did you catch, for example, that the study design presumed that artificial sweeteners have no behavioral effects on children? This is at best a dubious assumption. Saccharine is known to cause irritability in children, aspertame (Equal) can cause anxiety, depression and headaches, and sucralose (Splenda) is suspected of causing anxiety and mood swings (although it has not been as well studied as the others). Think about it: if both the sugary drinks and the "placebo" drinks that were artificially sweetened affect kids' behavior negatively, then the study has failed in its objective.

By the way, as a parent of a diabetic child, I can tell you that there is simply no question but that high and low blood sugars cause children (and adults!) to behave oddly. Any parent of a diabetic could tell you that. A kid with high blood sugar is a bit like a social drinker who's had one too many -- giddy, over-active, too loud, a bit clumsy -- and also often brittle, capable of swinging from sweetness and light to nasty and irritable in the blink of an eye. A kid with low sugar can be weepy, depressed, and lacking in energy, all the way to comatose if it goes low enough.

The question is: do kids with normal pancreases who guzzle a sugary soda secrete so much insulin, so fast, that their blood sugar levels crash soon thereafter? In my experience (my other kid doesn't have diabetes), the answer is, quite probably, yes.

Tibore said...

I do need to nitpick the writeup of that study a bit:

"The amount of sugar in the blood is carefully regulated by insulin. Whether you eat a lot of sugar or none at all should make no difference to your blood sugar level."

The glucose-level regulation system in the body controlls blood glucose levels within certain ranges. It's not consistent, even in healthy people. On top of that, it cannot be presumed that the control is perfect to begin with, not without specific glucose-levels monitoring. The whole crux of the problem behind diabetes is the body's inability to properly regulate that level. A person cannot make such a sweeping statement without properly determining if people in a given study do in fact have proper glucose-load responses. It's entirely possible to have perfectly healthy people, continual hypoglycemics, and hyperglycemics on the cusp of diabetes all rolled together.

Anyway, point made. Keep in mind that I'm criticizing a statement made in the writeup; I haven't read the study itself yet. The author of that Skeptoid column oversimplified, and that needs correction. I'm not certain if the actual researchers who conducted the study carried the same assumption too, so this doesn't apply to them.

Shanna said...

T. Boone and others have it right....it's the birthday party excitement that gets the kids revved, not the sugar.

I don’t think this study has looked into it enough to tell. It sounds like they gave them one glass of fruit punch, right (haven’t read the whole study)? Have they studied whether there is a difference between a moderate amount of sugar and a lot of sugar?

I agree with freeman, though, that I would be more concerned about the crash later, then being hyper.

chickelit said...

I agree with Freeman and Shanna. The bad behavior (in boys at least) really comes out when they're tired and fighting it. Sugar helps them reach that point.

Joan said...

Ask any elementary school teacher, and s/he'll tell you that it's not the sugar rush, it's the crash. And that juice they drink with lunch isn't the problem, it's the cupcakes they have on an empty stomach at snack time that rev them up. Freeman Hunt's entirely right that sugar alone is one thing, sugar with proteins and fats is entirely different. And, as several have noted, the effects take some time to notice. I doubt one glass of sugary drink is going to affect any normal kid that much.

I do know, from experience,that giving my son a glass of Snapple (which has high fructose corn syrup, despite it's "best stuff on earth" label) on an empty stomach is a really, really bad idea. Yeah, he wasn't so hungry or dehydrated anymore, but he couldn't handle the crash that followed the short-lived high. My other two kiddos were just fine, but you can tell by looking at them that my oldest has a vastly different metabolism from his brother and sister.

I think the study is interesting but more from a psychology perspective. I don't fault the sample size, especially given the study design. I think it would be interesting to see a really well-designed study which measured reality and not perceptions, like the frequency of movements, the amount of talking, the speed of speech, etc, to get some empiric measure of activity, which could then be examined for signs of "hyperactivity."

Maybe when I'm going for my PhD.

Keith said...

Of course sugar makes kids hyper. In fact, they don't even have to eat it, just looking at the crap makes them go bonkers.

Synova said...


This group claims that it's not the sugar at all, but the food coloring that often goes with it.

I've known people who have followed this diet for their kids (or for the one child who is hyperactive, and the others just get the same) and they claim it makes a difference but that tiny amounts of food coloring throw the whole thing.

Shanna said...

I guess they were trying to create some blind study characteristics, but I would be a lot happier if they had used water as a contrast, without fake sugar and food dye. And maybe given different amounts of sugar and measured the same kids several times during the day. This study just needs work.

It is interesting from a psychology perspective and it seemed more designed to study the parents than the children in a lot of ways.

chickelit said...

Synova: Are you suggesting that "white" sugar is superior?

traditionalguy said...

The strange thing to me is that they Experts In Child Control prescribe/mandate amphetamines as the preferred control sacrement. The result is a stimulated mind the can exercise more self control. The downside is a true "crash" from coming off drug addiction, not a temporary sugar fueled energised state. It is doubtfull that the guinea pig kids will ever stay off amphetamines as adults. This is the Brave New World Government that now demands to regulate the children's dietary habits.

Joe M. said...

hah! I knew it!

The Dude said...

Imagine that - old hippies were wrong, man.

Caffeine, artificial colors and flavors, HFCS - all of those will cause mood and behavior changes. But plain ol' sugar - yum - nothing is more soothing.

George M. Spencer said...

Went to my kids' high school today.

Legalistic notices plastered on the locked, bolted, bullet-proof video monitored doors giving the mandatory 72-hour notice that a herbicide will be sprayed to alert all those who are "chemically sensitive."

Like, how many people out of a million are affected adversely by Scott's Turf Builder?


There's really a proven causal link? Do you have to eat it? Smoke it?

What does it cost on a statewide basis to print all those notices? How much legal time was involved? How much administrative time? How many tax dollars?

blake said...

GWF George,

I know a kid like that. The tiniest amount of certain chemicals can radically alter her behavior almost instantly. Even send her into seizures.

But if you're a parent of such a child, you're obviously not relying on the state to post signs.

blake said...

This not really the study they think it is.

Richard Fagin said...

You all didn't know that sugar is a four letter word? There used to be cereals called Sugar Pops, Sugar Smacks, and Super Sugar Crisp, not to mention Tony the Tiger hawked Sugar Frosted Flakes.

There are probably a lot of good reasons not to overdo sugar, but like a lot of things, today's nitwit overprotective parents carry it a bit too far. Kellogg's couldn't sell cereal with sugar in the name any more than they could sell pork products in Saudi Arabia.

Did I forget to mention that KFC was renamed because you sure don't want to eat anything "fried" do you?

You have children these days suffering a medically identifiable condition called "failure to thrive" because their nitwit parents are too scared to give 'em any dietary fat. No, really. I'm not making this up. It's characterized by slower than normal brain development. Too common for my taste among the children of the well to do. I wondered where all the well off Obama voters came from.

I count my lucky stars to have been born while adults were still in charge.

SteveR said...

And I bet your lucky stars are magically delicious.

Revenant said...

Did you catch, for example, that the study design presumed that artificial sweeteners have no behavioral effects on children?

I did notice that. But that doesn't explain why the half who thought their kids were given sugar reported more hyperactivity than the other group.

I would say the study showed that parents over-report whatever effect sugar has on their kids. It didn't rule out sweeteners having an effect.

Revenant said...

Like, how many people out of a million are affected adversely by Scott's Turf Builder?

The simple answer would be "everybody", since it is poisonous.

As for what percentage of people are negatively affected by indirect exposure, nobody knows. It is non-zero, though.

Joe said...

WOW! They studied 50 kids!

That was one study. Dozens, if not hundreds, of studies going back decades have found the same thing.

A somewhat related study has found that stereotypical drunken behavior increases if the subjects are convinced they are drunk or are consuming more alcohol. The point being that power of suggestion is much stronger than people realize.

(I also read a study that found that hypnosis largely operates on the same principle. They found that pretending to hypnotize people often had the same effect as in "actually" doing it--actually in quotes since many psychologists are believe hypnosis is all about the power of suggestion and nothing more.)

Jamie said...

My work places me close to many parents of young children; we always have at least one whose child has "never had" something normal. Last week one mom told me, half proud, half sheepish, that her child had just had his first-ever ice cream sundae that weekend. He's going to be four; fortunately he won't remember that he was deprived of that treat for almost four years.

Of course, my husband's mom had him convinced that Ritz crackers were "cookies" until he started school, so I guess it's not altogether a recent phenomenon.

blake said...

Huh. I don't think any of my kids have had ice cream sundaes.

Well, I guess that depends on how you define a "sundae". They've had ice cream on occasion.

Do other people go down a list of junk food items that their children should eat?

Jim said...

There were also several month studies where kids supposedly sensitive to sugar were given three different sweeteners, including sugar, each for several weeks. There were no significant differences.

The idea that sugar makes kids hyperactive is COMPLETE nonsense. When I grew up, no one believed that sugar made kids hyperactive. This myth was created by some hack nutritionist in the 1970s.

Kids respond to caffeine (in chocolate and cola), not sugar. Then there's the social, party aspect.

Jim Lindgren

Anonymous said...

WOW! They studied 50 kids!


That's sure as hell conclusive.

To the people who criticize the study and to the people who agree with it.
It is very important to be critical of scientific studies. That being said if you really want to put down the study you should actually read the study and similar scientific literature. By doing this you may get a more accurate look at the scientific process and be able to back up your opinions with good logical facts rather than just insults.

dena said...

i have 3 kids. and nieces and nephews. i dont think sugar effects a kid. too much layin up on an x box or other game is a waste of energy. they are kids let them PLAY OUTSIDE. they will wear themselves out:)