Ask science: Does sugar really make children hyper?

"Why aren’t my kids hyper after binging on sugar?" asked Gillian Mayman at Mind the Science Gap, a blog featuring the work of various Master of Public Health students from the University of Michigan.

The punchline: "A review of 12 separate research studies found that there was no evidence that eating sugar makes kids hyper."

The post is great, but greatest of all? The animated GIFs used to illustrate it. (via @Boraz)


  1. Chocolate milk ramps up my son so much that he physically can’t stay still. I don’t care if studies say otherwise, my kid is tweaked by chocolate milk. He doesn’t get it (unless he’s with grandma and she has to deal with him.)  He eats plenty of other things with all kinds of sugar in them, but nothing hits him the way the chocolate milk does.

    1. “He eats plenty of other things with all kinds of sugar in them, but nothing hits him the way the chocolate milk does.”  – indeed, you just said the same thing as the studies right there. It’s the idea of chocolate milk that gets him wound up, not sugar. 

    2. “He doesn’t get it (unless he’s with grandma and she has to deal with him.)”

      It’s a treat he gets with grandma and he gets excited by that.

  2. The thing about children being hyper on sugar is an american phenomena. In Scandinavia this is only known from american mass media. 

    1. Yep, I agree.  I only knew about the effects of sweets and caffeine from american TV.  As a kid in the UK the thing that fascinated me that there was this idea of a caffeine-mitzva where kids couldn’t drink coffee until a certain age.  I used to sit watching Diffren’ Strokes or Charles in Charge whilst nailing some PG Tips or Maxwell House and wondering what the hell was going on!

      1.  Same thing here. I’m from France and I’ve only found out that kids were supposed to get hyper on sugar by watching U.S. TV shows, movies and series.

      2.  I accompanied 60 Israeli first-graders on a hike in the woods in the early 1990s, with a stop 2/3 of the way through for campfire-made syrupy-sweet turkish coffee.  From my admittedly limited sample size, I can attest that the effects of extremely stong coffee on first-graders is not culturally-bound. 

        The opinion of the adults around them as to whether amping them up to that degree was a legitimate pedagogical approach is culturally-bound, however – the Israeli teachers were totally unconcerned by the ruckus that ensued.

          1. Whoa, slow down – I wasn’t the one giving it.  I was observed what I thought was a demonstration put on by a teacher of how some notional person might make turkish coffee on a campfire.  Then they started pouring shots into dozens of little styrofoam cups and handing them out.  Then everything became a sort of screaming blur.

  3. For me it was all about conditioning.  By the time I was 7 I could drink southern sweet tea and promptly take a nap.  By the time I was 10 my father and I could polish off a 2 liter of Mt. Dew in less than 2 days….not hyper at all.  Routinely slept 10+ hours a night.

    …and yes I was an overweight child…and I’m still working on it.

    (On the flip side all that exposure to caffeine I think has made me sensitive to it.  So now I have a heavily caffeinated beverage only once or twice a week.)

  4. I had plenty of sugar as a kid, in the form of candy and soda. It never made me hyper. Childhood made me hyper, sugar or no. And when I was hyper, my parents kept me in line; they didn’t throw up their hands and blame sugar.

    I think the driving force behind the phenomenon is that most parents want to believe that absent external stimuli, their kids are generally good, polite, well-behaved people. They’re not. No kid is. They’re quasi-people. And the closer to real people they become, the less time they generally want to spend with their parents.

    Parenting is a tough job, and your kids will spend a large amount of time as monsters. If you believe that they are somehow impossible to wrangle due to a few teaspoons of sugar, they’ll pick up on it, and they’ll act like they are beyond control. If you act like they always can be wrangled and you expect more from them, they’ll most likely rise to the expectations.

  5. I think the real find here is that the little girl has a serious crush on that little eyeless boy. 

  6. I was talking to a bunch of parents about this once, and quite a few looked like a light was going on when i said most studies i’d read about it said that it was about the notion of getting something that makes you hyper, not the sugar itself. They started comparing notes about all the times their kids had something with no sugar and still wen’t bonkers.

    Also there’s a similar string of studies showing the same kinds of results about drunken behaviour. That if someone thinks they are having booz they act out, and if they don’t know they are drinking alcohol they don’t act obnoxiously drunk. Lot of the studies were with university students, and indicated much of what we write off as booz induced insanity is really just booz incited play acting of what they have come to think of as what being a drunken teen is supposed to look like.

  7. If you want to do a 2X2 study that passes the giggle test, you’d better have 1,200+ subjects!

    After a mid day  Christmas party, the person I was with had a craving for Rollos (chocolate and caramel) and expressos, so we made a sugar/caffeine run.  The following monday, I said “You know, I went home and cleaned my apartment.” and my coworker said “You know, so did I!”

    1. That’s what I was thinking. Given what we know (and don’t know) about interactions between genetics and environmental factors, it’s hard to swallow any cross the board statements about the influence of sugar (or other substance) without a large spoonful of the same.

  8. Putting aside whether sugar triggers hyperactivity, no one should be eating refined sugar, especially children. Refined sugar is toxic and evil.

  9. 300 calories of sugar in the form of a candybar or 20oz soda (not to mention more caffeine than a cup of coffee) is enough to make me as a full size adult perk up quite a bit. You’d be crazy to offer a medium sized coke to a human the size of eight year old and not expect bad results.

  10. This is similar to the doube blind studies on alcohol which have been conducted over the years.

    People who ‘think’ they’ve drunk alcohol and are in a room with others who appear to be intoxicated will themselves act in a similar fashion. Though it works when they’re alone too, it’s more pronounced when they perceive the behaviour of other people.

    I’ve seen this phenomena with children who’s parents believe they ‘act out’ (years in child protection have given me lots of opportunities to ‘parent watch’ and interview). Often the children’s behaviour is ordinary. Sometimes it’s a little on the ‘upbeat’ side but nothing unusual.

    If the parents think the child is medicated they rate the behaviour as less annoying than if they think the child isn’t – even though the behaviour is similar.

    I’ve come across lots of instance of ” makes my kid hyper” only to find that the foster carers or school find it doesn’t.

    Parents perception and responses to the child are more likely the cause of the reported behaviour than the child intake of anything.

    This is not to say that some children are not hyperactive or easily moved to activity, just that the greater probability is that the parents preconceived notions of normal/abnormal and their self-fulfilling prophesies and behaviour are greater predictions of a child being identified as problematic.

  11. sugar or no, my kid is hyper, and I like it. I’m such a sloth, why would I want to tamp that down in him.

    1.  Depends what he/she does when hyper, doesn’t it?  Giggling and silly, cool.  Endangering self or others, not so much.

  12. We need to be careful here. Many of these studies were funded by the food industry AND they were careful to exclude attention deficit and hyperactive children from some of them. So, they are correct in saying that sugar does not cause most healthy children to become hyperactive. However, it can still be a trigger in ADHD kids.

    The Center for Science in the Public Interest has an excellent review of a larger body of work than that reviewed by this group. I can’t get the pdfs to download right now, and DISCUS won’t show up on the computer I have a copy on. Sigh. I also can’t log in as my self  on BB. Anyone interested should be able to find it on their site.

    current professor of pharmacology and former school psychologist.

  13. After reading this article I am now conditioned to no longer believe my kid will become hyper after eating sugar. He may shit sparks and run around the ceiling, but because I believe sugar has no influence on him, my perception will be that he is not hyper.

    Is this a double blind test as well? I’m not aware if this article is genuine or not, but is the writer?

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