How sweet it is! Sugar is cleared as enemy of the peace


At first, I was delighted at the news that sugar does not make kids bounce off the walls.

Here was the New England Journal of Medicine, a publication with something of a reputation for telling us what we should not be eating, now saying that eating sugar was not, repeat not, making our kids wild beasts. It is a rarity these days that a respected publication announces that a food is not responsible for a major American problem. It was a refreshing change.

Just to be sure, I checked the details to see if these findings were the kind that get clobbered a few months later by researchers who really know what they are doing. These studies were said to be "comprehensive," "well-controlled," and building on the findings of previous work in the field. In other words they were legit.

What I found especially compelling was that kids were tested in their homes, where in my experience, kids do the majority of their feeding. News stories told of the study published in the current Journal led by Dr. Mark Wolraich of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In it researchers gave 48 preschool and school-age children large amounts of sugar, aspartame or saccharine. Neither the children nor their parents knew what they received. The researchers found no effect from any of the sweeteners on the children's behavior.

News reports also told of a related study, published in the current issue of Pediatrics. Dr. Bennett Shaywitz of the Yale University School of Medicine found no connection between very high doses of aspartame on the behavior of 15 hyperactive children. Some researchers think that hyperactivity has more to do with genetics, than diet.

Sugar, in short, is off the hook as the cause of bad behavior in kids. As a lifelong "Friend of Sugar," I always thought the case against the sweet stuff was overblown.

I first encountered the myth of sugar-induced behavior as a kid. Since we enjoyed eating sweets, we were told the sugary food had to be bad for us. It made us do evil things, like clobbering our brothers or sisters. Back then the anti-sugar argument seemed to be based on the idea that pleasure leads to perdition. In the intervening years, it picked up the sugar-high slant. If a modern kid acted up, he could claim the Snickers made him do it.

As kids we saw plenty of examples -- what researchers would call "anecdotal evidence" -- of the sugar myth gone sour.

For example, every Lent my three brothers and I "voluntarily" stopped eating candy. Somehow our marked cutback in sugar intake did not result in any comparable drop in family skirmishes. The level of sibling hostilities remained as high in the low-sugar stretch running from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday as it did during the high sugar days of the rest of the year. That was because the problem was not sugar, the problem was my brothers. It was all their fault. And still is.

Like most kids, my brothers and I learned that occasionally saying "No" to sugar was a good way to catch your parents' eye. Turning down something adults had deemed as "bad" made a kid look virtuous. It gave you "good kid points," which in the unending bartering process between kids and parents could be cashed in later, when for example, you really wanted to buy a squirt gun.

Coincidentally that seemed to be pretty much what a 1980s study found when it looked at families who had avoided eating foods with red dye and other additives. The parents insisted the additive-free diet made their kids behave better. But researchers said that if there was any improved behavior it was probably a result of the added attention the kids got from parents who had been rigorously watching their kids' diets.

Just as I was feeling smug about the shattering of the sugar myth, I realized that without it, I was in trouble.

As a parent, the sugar myth had been a comfortable excuse to fall back on when my kids went bonkers. Now that I couldn't blame the rotten behavior of my kids on their intake of E. L. Fudge cookies, what was I gonna pin it on?

The alternative suspects did not look promising. Maybe I would have to examine my behavior. Maybe bellowing, "Stop shouting!" at the kids was not a good way to calm the kids down.

Maybe the kids have to take some responsibility for their annoying antics. And maybe there are certain situations when it is OK for kids to become wild things, and for parents to hide in a corner and eat something sugary.

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