No, sugar can’t be generally blamed for making kids hyper – not according to the randomised controlled studies designed to test the theory.
A 1995 analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 16 studies, with a strict inclusion criteria, and found that sugar did not affect the behaviour or cognitive performance of children.
‘‘The strong belief of parents may be due to expectancy and common association,’’
claimed the authors. They pointed out though, that a small effect on subsets of children couldn’t be ruled out.
More recent studies, looking more specifically into sugar’s impact on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have also failed to find strong links between sugar and behavioural changes.
A 2012 report in Pediatrics found that dyes and preservatives in foods might occasionally cause an adverse reaction. Sugar and aspartame, however, for the most part failed to demonstrate a significant adverse effect. That said, the authors noted a few factors, such as ‘‘sugar load’’, that might exacerbate ADHD.
‘‘Avoiding tooth decay, diabetes, and obesity are all good reasons to limit consumption of sugar in the human diet. But sugar consumption, even in high amounts, does not contribute to hyperactivity, inattention, juvenile delinquency, reductions in cognitive performance, or other behaviour problems in children or adults.’’
So if sugar highs are a fallacy, why are they a fact in the minds of parents?
‘‘To my knowledge, sugar does not cause hyperactivity,’’ says consultant paediatric dietician Anna Richards.
There are other factors to take into account, she says. For one, children don’t typically sit down with a spoon and a bowl of sugar and eat it in isolation, says Richards. So when people say that sugar winds children up, the question is what are they having at the same time? Is it brightly coloured? Is the child sensitive to colouring agents?
There is evidence to show some children are sensitive to food additives and artificial colourings, so in some cases children might be reacting to other ingredients in party food, not just sugar. Secondly, the environment might be a trigger. Children usually get hyper at birthday parties. ‘‘But you could round up a bunch of 5-year-olds and put them in an exciting situation and they’ll wind themselves up perfectly nicely, without any sugar added to the mix.’’
Richards adds that giving sugar on an empty tummy – without other nutrients like protein to couch its metabolism into the bloodstream – will cause a rapid rise in blood sugars, which in turn triggers the release of adrenaline. That adrenaline, rather than the sugar itself, can wind up children, says Richards.
But thanks to these sugar spikes, parents can at least be right about one thing: sugar crashes. These are no myth – they do happen, says Richards.
If a meal’s glycaemic load is very high, a rapid rise in blood sugar will be accompanied by a plummet. ‘‘If the overall glycaemic load of a meal is low, albeit that it has some sugar in it, you won’t see that same fluctuation in sugar levels.’’
Take sugar-sweetened beverages, for example, he says: They usually come with a lot of caffeine, which certainly does make people buzz.
‘‘When you think of a cola, that’s enough to give adults a buzz, so for a 10-year-old having it, it’s going to give them more of a buzz. So I think the caffeine factor is very real.’’
Like Richards, Swinburn believes environments where sugar lurks makes kids more excitable. The fact is birthday parties have multiple stimulating factors, he says..
‘‘I certainly believe, and once again there’s good science behind that, that a diet in junk food is not good for kids’ mental health, and a diet of healthy food is good for kids’ mental health. But that’s the whole diet, not just a single ingredient.’’
This article is from the Southland Times today, and raises some very valid points about what affects children’s behaviour, it might not just be food!