It is common knowledge that sugar makes children hyper but this popular idea does not receive much scientific support. Aoife Muckian investigates.
Many of us fondly recall over-indulging in birthday parties in our childhood, mixing two different soft drinks together to make a new concoction. After the celebration and lots of slices of cake, it was a given that we would run wild outside and play. Our parents would likely attribute our high levels of energy to all of the sugar we had just consumed, the age-old “sugar rush.” Despite this being what many would consider a fact of life, scientific evidence does not appear to support the idea that sugar causes hyperactivity in children.
In 1995, a large meta-analysis carried out by the American Medical Association found that there was no link between sugar and hyperactivity in children. This finding has been replicated by many more recent studies and meta-analyses. Why then is the myth so pervasive in society?
“In 1995, a large meta-analysis carried out by the American Medical Association found that there was no link between sugar and hyperactivity in children.”
Part of the reason for this may be that sugar consumption and special occasions go hand-in-hand for children. Where there are parties, there is sugar and there is hyperactivity. Sugar simply becomes guilty by association. This association gets cemented into the minds of parents, and alters their perceptions of their children’s behaviour.
A 1994 American study tested the idea that the persistence of the sugar myth is due to parental expectancy about the effects of sugar on their children. In this study, 30 five-to-seven-year old boys were separated into two groups. The parents of the children of one group were told that their children has been fed sugar, and while the parents of the other group were told that their children had not been given any sugar. In reality, neither group had eaten any sugar. However, in the first group researchers found that parents rated their children as significantly more hyperactive. It thus seems that parent’s knowledge of this myth also has an effect on their perception of sugar’s culpability in hyperactivity.
“Sugar simply becomes guilty by association.”
Children’s hyperactivity comes from the occasion, rather than the sugar. In blaming sugar for their children’s excitability, parents are committing that most human of errors: mistaking correlation for causation. It seems that swapping out the cakes for carrot sticks will not change how excitable children are at a party. Perhaps it would make sense for parents to heed an old admonition, and let them eat cake.