Why do we think sugar makes kids crazy?

 If we don’t blame the sugar, do we have to blame ourselves? |  Paweł Czerwiński  on  Unsplash

If we don’t blame the sugar, do we have to blame ourselves? | Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Sugar doesn’t make kids crazy.

This isn’t just settled science. It’s dusty. The theory of the sugar-crazed kid was debunked long before today’s kids were born, and even before some of their parents were born.

In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a meta-analysis of sixteen studies looking at the effect of sugar on kids’ behavior. Their conclusion was clear: “sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.” The researchers attributed the persistent belief in the sugar-hyperactivity connection to parental expectations. That is, kids seem to act crazy after eating sugar because their parents think that sugar will make them act crazy.

The unsettled question isn’t whether or not sugar makes kids crazy. It’s why parents continue to believe in the sugar myth despite abundant evidence of properly-performing pancreases. One possibility is that people are confused about the difference between correlation and causation: we see the sugar, we see the crazy kid, and we draw a clear line between them. It’s hard to resist conflating our observational claims (what we think we see happening in front of us, what we want to believe about things we think are bad for us) with actual evidence.

In his short video on the sugar myth, Aaron Carroll, Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, describes many potential confounding variables. Maybe kids’ behavior changes because sugar-binging takes place around special events that make kids tired and hyper. Maybe kids are acting differently because they are just so excited that they’re being allowed to eat sugar. Or maybe kids aren’t acting differently at all, but the parents, seeing the sugar, start to interpret the children’s behavior differently.

Carroll, a pediatrician interested in health education and policy, tackles all sorts of health myths, from bedrest preventing pre-term labor to cold weather making you sick. In these videos, Carroll uses health myths to teach people to be savvier scientific consumers. His approach suggests that if parents just knew a bit more about science, they would be less likely to confuse correlation (the kids had sugar AND they were acting crazy) with causation (the kids were acting crazy BECAUSE they had sugar).

The problem with this approach is that when we want to, parents can be good evaluators of inaccurate causal claims. Take the correlation of ice cream sales and murder rates. Do we look at an increase in ice cream sales, an increase in murders, and conclude that ice cream drives people to crime?

We can look at the ice cream-murder connection and say “ice cream didn’t make my kid into a murderer.” We can go even further and note that, while warm weather might somehow be driving both the ice cream sales and the murders, the warm weather is not necessarily causing either of them. We can identify a correlation without immediately assuming causation.

Why is it so easy to see through the ice cream-murder example but so hard to disassociate sugar from our kids’ behavior?

In the ice cream example, the truth (ice cream does not produce murderers) is more comforting than the fiction (ice cream causes murder).

But what if the truth is less comforting than the fiction? Blaming kids’ behavior on sugar is comforting. It’s a convenient foil, linking one thing we know to be bad in some cases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease) to other behaviors as a justification for eliminating it. Sugar is an outside force acting upon our children. Blaming it for their behavior allows us to ignore other inside explanations for that behavior.

When we pause to consider what else might explain this connection, we get uncomfortable, because we have to consider that the sugar-rush is coming from the inside.

What we identify as the “sugar rush” could be coming from inside our kids. Maybe they’re are wiped out from spending an afternoon with twenty other children, a night patrolling the neighborhood for candy, or performing at their best for a room full of near-strangers.

The “sugar rush” could just as easily be coming from inside us. Maybe we’re wiped out from those big days, and as a result less tolerant of normal swings in our children’s mood and behavior.

Maybe the sugar rush is a reflection of our own insecurities about our children’s behavior at other people’s houses, and blaming the sugar is a way of avoiding blaming ourselves for inappropriate or unusual behavior.

Maybe the sugar rush is just our own failure to recognize that what we label with the pejorative “crazy” is in fact within the range of normal, inconvenient, child behavior.

Maybe the sugar-crazed kid myth sticks not because of our poor scientific literacy, but in spite of it, because it protects us from having to delve deeper into any of these questions.