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Does sugar make kids hyper? Here's what the science says

Here's what the research shows about whether eating sugar makes kids hyper.
/ Source: TODAY

As any parent who's taken their child to a birthday party knows, a single bite of cake can appear to send your kid's energy levels into overdrive. Many of us assume that sugar is to blame. But is it actually the sugar in the cake or their Halloween candy haul that causes your child to act totally hyper?

Researchers and parents will likely disagree about the answer.

Does sugar make kids hyper?

Multiple studies of kids eating either a placebo or real sugar — neither the parents nor the kids know who's eaten what — have found that the children who ate sugar did not behave differently from those who didn't, NBC News senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said in a segment on TODAY aired Feb. 8.

"(Researchers) saw (the kids) not getting any more hyper with sugar. They're saying it doesn't work," Torres explained.

A 1995 study in JAMA, which analyzed the results of 23 different experiments on the affects of sugar on kids' behavior using a placebo model, concluded that "sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children," the authors wrote. In case one study isn't enough to convince you, just wait, there's more.

Another 1994 study in The New England Journal of Medicine that looked at almost 50 kids between 3 and 10 years old, some of whom were described by their parents as "sugar sensitive," also concluded that "even when intake exceeds typical dietary levels, neither dietary sucrose nor aspartame affects children’s behavior or cognitive function," the authors wrote.

Research from around the globe has come to similar conclusions. The authors of a 2018 study in 287 Australian kids between 8 and 12 years old wrote: "Whilst a high proportion of children consumed above the recommended amount of daily total sugar, total sugar consumption was not related to behavioural or sleep problems, nor affected the relationship between these variables."

While it is possible that sugar may have a small effect on the behavior of some kids, the authors of the 1995 study noted, research shows that sugar does not make most children especially hyper, as many parents believe.

So why do so many parents feel like their own kids' behavior after eating sugar directly contradicts these findings? TODAY co-anchor Hoda Kotb was quick to tell Torres that her daughters "go crazy" after eating a piece of cake.

There are likely a couple of factors beyond the sugar at play, Torres replied.

"No. 1, you think (your kids) are going to get more excitable if they eat sugar, so anything they do after eating sugar, you're going to blame on the sugar," he explained. "No. 2, (kids) usually get sugar at celebrations and parties, when they're hanging out with their friends or running amuck."

So if you, too, have assume that sugar equals hyperactivity, don't beat yourself up about it. The conclusion you've come to through your own observations can also be explained by science. The combination of confirmation bias with conflating causation and correlation is a convincing cognitive cocktail.

How much sugar should kids eat?

Even if sugar does not make kids hyper, there are plenty of reasons to limit about how much sugar your child is eating — like tooth decay and the fact that many high-sugar foods are high in calories and lack nutritional value.

The American Heart Association recommends kids between 2 and 18 years old eat fewer than 6 tablespoons of added sugar a day and drink no more than 8 ounces of sugary drinks a week. Children under 2 should not have added sugar.

"Some foods and drinks contain sugar naturally, but added sugars — which go by many names and find their way into many products — are introduced during processing or preparation," the American Heart Association explained.

On food labels, added sugars include high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice and more. Common foods that include added sugars are:

  • Cake
  • Cookies
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Hamburger buns
  • Salad dressings

If you have any concerns about your child's sugar intake or diet, contact their pediatrician.