One thing that people who know me well come to realize is that I have this incurable compulsion to state facts. I'm a very empirical person. To some people this comes across as though I'm showing off. To other people they feel like I'm correcting them. Still other people see me as a walking encyclopedia. If anything, it's more of the last one. And it's not necessarily that I'm correcting the person who stated the misinformation so much as it is that I feel the need to correct the misinformation itself. I cant help it. It's not just a habit, it's a deep rooted compulsion that I don’t think any amount "working on" will ever change. Most of my friends now either find it interesting, or they just completely ignore me. To say that this sometimes has an impact on my personal relationships would be an understatement. Yet, nevertheless, I can't stop. It's like it's an injustice to myself, to knowledge, and to all of humanity to allow the disinformation to continue to spread and I'm the only one who can stamp it out. I know, it's absurd. But at least I know I have that problem.
Why is all of this relevant you ask? Because now is one of those fact-correcting moments. I feel it welling up and I have to get it out. Halloween is less than a week away. In the last few days I have heard the same basic phrase over and over again. It's driving me crazy! For the record: there is no such thing as a sugar high. Yes, that's right. Sugar does not make people hyperactive, it doesn’t make them bounce off of the walls, and it doesn’t make them crazy. Sick to their stomach, perhaps, but it has no effect on a person's behavioral disposition.
"How can you say that?!? My mom and my grandmother both told me that! It's true!" Sorry, but no. It's not true. This myth was first dispelled (that I'm aware of) back in 1994 (more on that later). In 1999 Researchers conducted a study at Vanderbilt University involving 48 students. Those students consumed either high-sugar diets or diets with sugar-substitutes. Neither (substance) had any effect on the children's behavior.
"Okay, so you have one study that says that, big whoop." On the contrary, this has been a study that has been repeated numerous times over the last few decades. For the sake of space I'm not going to list them all here, but another notable example comes from 2002 by Dr. Richard Surwit, the Chief of Medical Psychology at Duke University Medical Center. Dr. Surwit was using sugar as a key component of a weight loss study. Not only did subjects lose equal weight on calorie-controlled high-sugar and no-sugar diets, he found no negative side effects. Dr. Surwit said, "Nobody reported any behavioral problems, any mood swings, any anxiety, any hyper-kinetic kind of behavior."
"I'm still not convinced." Okay, okay. How about this study from 2003? Researcher D. Murphy published an extensive article the Journal of Current Health (Oct., 2003). The article outlined many different types of sugars and their effects on the human body. Murphy goes on to say "Contrary to popular opinion, sugar does not cause aggressive or disruptive behavior in children. More than 400 children in 13 different studies showed no difference in their behavior when they ate a lot of sugar compared to when they ate very little sugar."
"I don't know, I still don't buy it." Okay, there was another study in 2008. This study originated at Indiana University and was published in the British Medical Journal (Dec, 2008). Dr. Aaron Carroll and Dr. Rachel Vreeman both conducted a series of studies on "holiday myths". When questioned whether or not sugar makes children hyperactive, Dr. Vreeman responded, "This is without a doubt false." Both doctors are Pediatricians at the Riley Hospital for Children. In their experiments they conducted 12 double-blinded, randomized, controlled experiments using different levels of sugar. None of these studies, not even studies looking specifically at children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, could detect any differences in behavior between the children who had sugar and those who did not." This includes sugar from candy, chocolate and natural sources. Even in studies of children who were considered "sensitive" to sugar, children did not behave differently after eating sugar-full or sugar-free diets. (This is also available in the book from St. Martin's Press: Don't Swallow Your Gum: Myths, Half-truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health.)
"But, my mom said..." Look. I get it. You've been hearing this all your life, but it's wrong. Take this other study from 2010. This report was published by the US News Service in Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. The report discusses mostly carbohydrates, however, it does go on to say "When it comes to hyperactivity, many people will point the finger at sugar. According to the American Dietetic Association, sugar is not the direct cause."
"Okay, okay. So if sugar isn't the cause of the hyperactivity, what is?" Great question. In some cases, such as the Air Force article, the researchers believe that the hyperactivity comes from children's natural hyperactivity due to the parties or festivities that are often associated with consuming a lot of candy. Murphy agrees with this assessment stating, "It may be the excitement of a birthday party or a holiday that gets kids "wired," not the sugar."
But, not all of the researchers agree. Dr. Surwit believes that hyperactivity may be attributed to Caffeine and other natural stimulants found in chocolate. To ponder Dr. Surwit's hypothesis I gathered some data on caffeine in common candies. Let's get some perspective first, a Monster Energy Drink (16oz) contains 160mg of caffeine. By comparison a cup of coffee contains between 100-150mg. A can of Coca-Cola contains around 35mg. Milky Way candy bars contain around 0.5mg per bar, while Hershey's Kisses contain 1mg each. Oreo Cookies contain 1.3mg each. One of my favorites, the Three Musketeers Bar contains about 2mg of caffeine. Reece's Peanut Butter Cups contain 4mg, Kit-Kat bars contain 5.9mg, and regular Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bars contain 9mg. Each square of Ghirardelli Special Dark contains 14mg. A full bar of Hershey's Special Dark contain 18 mg of caffeine while Twix tops the list with a surprising 21.8mg. Okay, so there may some truth to this as eating 2 Twix bars (four sticks) is about as much caffeine as a drinking a coke.
Even more surprising is that fact that there might not be any hyperactivity at all. In the original 1994 study researchers Daniel Hoover and Richard Milich conducted studies with their boys and their mothers. They fed one group of kids a drink with lots of sugar while they fed the other group drinks with no sugar. Some of the parents of the kids who had sugar were told that they had sugar, while others were not told. some of the parents from the other group were also misinformed and lead to believe that their children had consumed sugar, and the other parents were told that they had not. The results were that the objective observations by research staff resulted in no discernible changes in child behavior. The parents were also asked to rate their children's behavior. Without fail, the parents who were told that their children had consumed sugar (whether they had or not) rated their children's behavior as unruly, whereas the other group of parents rated their children as behaving normally (when in fact some of them had large amounts of sugar). In this case, at least it seems as though this s a clear-cut case of confirmation bias at work.
Also consider this study from the US Department of Justice. White sugar, a carbohydrate, contains tryptophan, a precursor on the neurotransmitter called serotonin. The more tryptophan crossing the blood/brain barrier, the more serotonin the body makes. Serotonin in turn induces sleep. Studies in the American military by Bonnie Spring showed that a breakfast or lunch high in carbohydrates reduced sustained attention as mood dropped and drowsiness ensued. Out of all the sugar studies with children, the most consistent finding was decreased activity after ingesting sugar. This contradicts the hypothesis sometimes called the “Sugar High”. This theory argues that children’s increased misbehavior in school after Halloween is due to their having eaten so much Halloween candy. Parents, therefore, act under a misconception when they restrict their children’s sugar intake in an effort to reduce hyperactivity. Causes of misbehavior and hyperactivity must be sought elsewhere than in sugar consumption.
"So, are you saying that I should just spoon feed my kid sugar?" No, not at all. There are still bad things associated with too much sugar; empty caloric intake, lack of nutritional value, and tooth decay among them. However, what I am saying is that sugar is not to blame for your child's misbehavior. In some cases it may be that you are electing to forego disciplining your child due to the social nature of the event, or it could be that the child is naturally excited, or as Dr. Surwit points out, it could be the caffeine. However, there's also the very real possibility that the misbehavior that's happening is in your mind.
And, one last interesting tid-bit as a side-note; honey is a not a good "natural substitute" for sugar. One teaspoon of honey contains six times more calories than one teaspoon of sugar.
And in case you were wondering, it seems, according to Dr. Surwit, that the myth of the Sugar High was WWII propaganda started by the US Army in order to conserve supplies for the war effort.
But, since I don't expect you take it at face value, so here's the sources that I used when writing this blog:
CARBOHYDRATES: BUSTING THE SUGAR MYTH. (2010, November 24). US Fed News Service, Retrieved October 24, 2011, from Research Library. (Document ID: 2196954981).
Ettkin, B. (2009, January 10). Indiana professors debunk health myths. Times Union (Albany, NY). Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
MEDICAL MYTHS FOR HOLIDAY SEASON: TRUE, FALSE OR UNPROVEN? (2008, December 19). US Fed News Service, Including US State News, Retrieved October 24, 2011, from Research Library. (Document ID: 1615371451).
Murphy, D. Sugar: How Sweet It Is. Current Health 2 v. 30 no. 2 (October 2003) p. 25-7
Fox, J. (1999). Myth-buster: does sugar make you hyper?. Scholastic Choices, 14(6), 4. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.