Parents won’t believe me, but ‘sugar rush’ is a myth

Sugar does not drive children insane. It has hardly any effect on their behaviour at all

There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Homer loses a $20 note, and it flies out of the window and lands at the feet of his bored son Bart and his friend Milhouse. They spend it on incredible amounts of sugar, and go on a wild, hallucinogenic bender, like a Broadway version of a William Burroughs novel. When Bart wakes up — head pounding, eyes sunken — he’s wearing a boy scout uniform, having signed up in his delirium. His sister, Lisa, stands over him. ‘The remorse of the sugar junkie,’ she sighs.

I don’t know how to break it to you, but that scene is not 100 per cent scientifically accurate. Most of us, though, believe that, while drinking an all-syrup Squishee might not cause us to have a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas experience, there is something in the idea of the ‘sugar rush’. It’s so much a part of our culture that there was a TV series a few years ago named after it. More importantly, most of us who are parents have been to small children’s birthday parties, and seen the damage that a gang of cake-fuelled four-year-olds can inflict on a new living room suite. But — you’ll find this hard to believe if you’ve had to battle those ravening, wild-eyed midget hordes yourself, but it appears to be true — the whole thing is a myth. Sugar does not drive children insane. It has hardly any effect on their behaviour at all.

The first time that a link between sugar and hyperactive children came to public attention was in 1978, in a study published in the journal Food and Cosmetics Toxicology. It looked at 265 children who had presented at a hospital with hyperkinesis — basically, running around too much and unable to concentrate. It found that they all had what looked like abnormally low blood-sugar levels, which, counterintuitively, can be caused by eating too much sugar, a condition known as ‘reactive hypoglycaemia’. In adults, hypoglycaemia can cause cognitive problems, including anxiety and emotional instability.

Around the same time, two cross-sectional studies (that is, studies looking at a group of people at a specific time) were carried out which found that hyperactive children who had eaten sugar tended to be more hyperactive than their unsweetened peers. Case, you might think, closed. But of course it wasn’t. Later research showed that the ‘abnormally low’ blood-sugar levels of the 1978 study were in fact within the normal range for children. And cross-sectional studies are limited: they can only show you that the kids who’ve eaten more sugar tend to be more hyperactive. It can’t show you that the sugar caused that hyperactivity. It could be that hyperactive kids hyperactively shovel sugar into their face, or there could be some entire other thing going on, some third factor causing both. (I don’t know what it could be, but the classic example of a third-factor problem is that ice-cream sales and drownings tend to go up at the same time. Not because ice cream drives us into the sea, but because on hot days, people are more likely to eat ice cream, and more likely to go swimming.)

In medical science the only way to show for definite that thing A causes thing B is the double-blind randomised controlled trial. You take a bunch of people; you divide them at random into two groups; you give one lot, your treatment group, some substance that you think will do something to them (in this case sugar); you give the other group, your control, a placebo. And you make sure no one — not you, not the patients, and not the patient’s parents — know which patient is in which group.

So someone did all that. In fact, lots of people did it, lots of times.

In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a meta-analysis. That’s one which takes all the studies on a certain topic and combines their data to make one mega-study, meaning that you can spot smaller effects. They looked at 23 studies published between 1983 and 1994, all of them looking at the effects of sugar on children compared with the effects of a placebo sweetener, saccharin or aspartame. The studies looked at 14 different outcomes, from academic performance to aggression to motor skills to mood. And, once you pooled all the data together, they could not find one single statistically significant effect. (Statistically significant meaning that there was a less than a one-in-20 chance of just getting that result by fluke.)

Well, you might say: ‘These eggheads with their tests and numbers don’t know my child. I would have been able to tell just by looking at him/her whether he/she’d been on the wine gums again.’ And that would be a reasonable hypothesis. Except that one of the things the studies measured was ‘parental rating’. They gave the kids the sugar or placebo, and then they asked the parents whether they seemed hyperactive. The parents were unable to do better than guessing. The same happened when teachers were asked to rate the children. If parents can’t tell whether their kids have had sugar or just a placebo, it’s probably time to admit that the sugar-rush effect is not real.

That’s not to say that there aren’t several very good reasons not to give your child too much sugar, most of which revolve around the standard ‘they’ll get fat and then get diabetes and also their teeth will fall out’ arguments, all of which are excellent and wise. But the widely held parental belief that sucrose has a similar effect on children as feeding after midnight has on gremlins simply has not stood up to inquiry.

My guess, though, is that most parents just won’t believe it. They’ve seen the swivelling eyes and the frothing mouth of one party-hat-wearing, pass-the-parcel-playing micro-lunatic too many.

You can show someone as much data as you like, but that sort of trauma overwhelms rational thought.

  • Telthecelt

    Nice feature. I am convinced! The other factor affecting the ‘sugar rush’ syndrome I would suggest is the adrenalin (which could well result in a follow-up sugar drop?) rush from the party or the gushing parent/grandparent spoiling event. Last para missing “times” at the end.

    • Nick_Tamair

      Last (actually penultimate) para is in good health, Tel. Read the sentence again. All best.

  • Sindigo

    Great article. If you remain unconvinced, dear parent of toddlers, I suggest you serve nothing but savoury, low-sugar snacks at your next children’s party. Your house will see the same level of destruction regardless.

  • methusala999

    if it was just at parties then the analysis above would be fine – the issue seems to be some brightly coloured sweets/food which just happen to have lots of sugar in them…

    • joespivey

      Funnily enough, there is evidence that certain food colourings may cause hyperactivity in children.

  • vivienneblake

    One problem caused by sugar is parental hysteria if they THINK their kids have had too much sugar: then the kids start to act out the (self-fulfilling) prophesy
    to wind their parents up! I’ve seen it happen.

  • Beth Larson

    I’m not a parent, but I was frequently surprised at my niece and nephew’s wound-up behavior when we did have a dessert after a family dinner. I wasn’t necessarily looking for the behavior -was always surprised by it. And it did seem to follow dessert! Perhaps there’s another explanation – the need for attention when routines get upset, the snowball effect of activity…

    • jchunick

      That’s why anecdotal evidence (Google the term, there are some very good definitions out there about it) is about the lowest bar for determining if something is true. You just cannot go by it… BUT, it’s a great place to say, “Hey, I noticed something interesting… I have a hypothesis that I now want to study. What kind of experiment can I set up to study it?”… or you can see if other people have already done studies and see what they found. So, now here you are. Here’s more information on the topic to bolster the conclusion presented in this article:

      • Beth Larson

        Thanks for the reminder, Jchunkick. I don’t need to look up anecdotal evidence. And i certainly am allowed to post an interesting (flabbergasting at the time) observation, whether it is scientifically based or not.

  • Ben Foley

    Sounds like something published by the sugar industry. Why don’t you post links to the journal articles and who funded them.

    • Ben Foley

      Tellingly, the one article you do link (that supports your theory) has exactly zero citations. That means that no one else that has written an article since thought it was worth mentioning.

    • jchunick

      Your first sentence sounds like a conspiracy theory, so really bad start. Your second sentence is marginally better. It would be nice if there were some links to the studies and such, but that simply may not be the format of this website – I don’t know, because this is the first article I’ve read here. Either way, this isn’t the first time this exact topic has been written about. Google is your friend if it’s worth the effort for you.

  • local

    But what happens when the placebo has the same effect? I’m pretty sure (I think) I can tell when my daughter has had sweetners – and the reaction is so much worse that sugar.

    • jchunick

      The first inkling that you cannot rely on your observations to jump to some conclusion is by your own words, ‘I’m pretty sure (I think) I can tell…” That’s very tenuous, at best, but hey you know your kid, right?… yet you just read the article and they address this very thing with parents, so…..

      • local

        I agree with you – hence my doubt. My concern is that the placebo is not actually an effective placebo.

        • local

          For example you could also conclude that sweetners are no worse than sugar….

    • joespivey

      There have been other studies comparing high doses of artificial sweetener and no sweetener that show no link with hyperactivity.

      • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

        There were many studies that showed smoking didn’t cause cancer.

  • voxvot

    Another dreary, “Parents are dumb, medical folks are so smart” diatribe. What have parents got to do with it Tom? Parents are basing their belief in equally confident and well researched previous reports, conducted by…you guessed it, experts like you. Experts who banged on about stupid parents feeding their children sugar and junk food, and being too dumb to realize the damage they were doing.
    Doctors produce shit research, convince parents, wait for a few years, conduct new research and then tell parents they are dumb again. It’s all about maintaining the status of the medical establishment as a socially (not medically) authoritative body. How long will it be before a future analog of Tom is telling us that sugar was, after all, causing hyperactive activity?

    • Semi_Colon

      You’re quite the conspiracy theorist, aren’t you?

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    If your description is accurate they showed that sweeteners have very similar effects to sugar, not that sugar (or sweeteners) had no effect.

  • Mary Ann

    The thing that sent my children hyper was visiting a friend who didn’t control her own children, after we left it would take mine a couple of hours to get back to normal.

  • Shel Hortun

    Its like giving someone non alcoholic beer without them knowing. They think its effecting them. They act drunk. They have thoroughly convinced themselves which has been proven to actually effect the body and mind into actually experiencing the effects of being drunk. All while having ingested zero alcohol.

    These kids get excited about having dessert/candy/cake/sugar which makes them act all wild and crazy while the actual substance they ate has no effect. Sugar Rush is an actual thing, its just not the sugar that causes it. Humans can convince themselves of anything. One woman nearly died from a misdiagnoses of cancer. She exhibited all the signs and symptoms after the misdiagnoses and was literally killing herself because of her mindset. Suddenly the doctors realize somethings up, tell her she doesn’t have cancer, and shes perfectly fine and well within a week.