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Many of us have seen children who come to a party as reasonable and educated human beings, eat copious amounts of cakes and sweets and transform into over-excited little devils … how do you explain that?
It is often said that the fuss is due to the amount of sugar they have consumed. And, to try to make the holidays calmer and more relaxing, some parents host sugar-free events, offering water and chickpea sandwiches instead of soda pop and cupcakes.
The idea that sugar affects behavior is very widespread and there are several hypotheses that try to explain how, including assumptions such as that children can be allergic to refined sugar or have abnormal patterns of blood glucose levels (1).
But the evidence for a link between sugar consumption and hyperactivity is surprisingly weak.
The most comprehensive study is a meta-analysis carried out in 1995 in which the authors searched for the best-designed studies on the subject, combined the information produced and re-analyzed it (2).
There were two main types of research: Some studies gave children sucrose or an artificial sweetener, such as aspartame, and then followed up without them or their parents knowing whether they ate real sugar or not. The others focused on children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or another condition to see if sugar particularly affected them.
Among all, the research covered ages two to 30, and was well designed but somewhat small: all but one of the 16 studies had fewer than 50 participants and one of them had only five.
However, the results of the meta-analysis were clear: sugar could not be shown to affect cognitive behavior or performance.
Many of us have been to children’s birthday parties and we have seen them running from one side to the other, more and more excited and impossible to control … if it is not sugar, what is it?
As the party progresses, the children play more and inevitably get more excited and tired, so of course the behavior deteriorates.
What we see is the most uncontrolled children, we note how many sweets they have eaten and we assume that there must be a link.
One study set out to test the expectation of parents who thought that sugar had a negative effect on their children (3). In the experiment, half of the mothers were led to believe that their children were drinking something sugary. To the other half, they revealed that the drinks contained an artificial sweetener, not sugar.
When asked to observe and rate their children’s behavior, those who thought they had consumed sugar said they were more hyperactive than those who knew they had taken a placebo.
But there was another trick in the study. While the mothers were observing their children, the researchers were observing them. They found that mothers who believed that their children had taken too much sugar not only criticized them more, but stayed closer to them and watched more closely.
So the alleged sugar had not changed the behavior of the children but that of the mothers.
So far there is no solid evidence that the amount of sugar consumed at parties makes children more hyperactive.
Fewer studies have been published on this topic recently but some researchers continue to search for the link between high sugar intake over a long period and ADHD (4).
They point out that just as sugar intake in the UK and the US has increased in the past two centuries, so has the diagnosis of ADHD in recent years.
But that is still only a correlation, and the study authors stress that more research is needed to establish a causal link.
Despite their best efforts, the causes of ADHD remain unknown.
There are, of course, many other reasons why it is better for boys not to consume a lot of sugar, especially damage to teeth and weight gain.
But it seems that the risk of being overexcited at a party is not one of them. That will happen in any case.