Ok after all the serious discussion and meta-analysis and breaking out the graphs of the last post, it’s time for some fun! (Warning: my definition of fun almost guaranteed not to match your definition of fun.) Time for some mythbusting tangentially related to food and braaaaaaains!

Myth: Sugar makes you hyperactive (especially if you’re a kid).

Perhaps my favourite medical myth ever! It’s more like a pandemic than a myth, because it is just everywhere. So let me say it clearly: sugar does not cause hyperactivity. No ifs or buts. It doesn’t. End of story. Twelve well-conducted trials have found no relationship between sugar and hyperactivity. It doesn’t depend on the amount of sugar. It doesn’t depend on whether the kid has ADHD. It doesn’t matter if the sugar is processed and refined or natural. It doesn’t matter if it’s sweets or chocolate or fruit. There is no link.

“But but but,” you say, clearly ignoring my stipulation of no buts. “But my kid goes crazy after having something sugary. Every time! It’s a clear-cut case of cause-and-effect!” Ahh, my anecdote-spewing friend. You must remember the sheer power of the brain to see the things it wants to see or expects to see.

Scientists conducted a particularly cute little study to look at this. Parents and their kids participated in this one. In one condition, kids were given a placebo pill with no active ingredient and their parents were told this. In another condition, kids were given a pill containing a big dose of sugar and their parents were told this. Each kid would then have a bit of a play and his or her parent was asked to rate their kid’s behaviour. Parents whose child had received the big dose of sugar reported that their child was off the walls with hyperactivity, definitely more energetic than usual, more frenetic, way more active, more crazy. Too bad that in a charming little twist of the kind we have come to expect of psychology experiments like this, all the children had been given placebo. The only thing that varied was whether parents thought their kid had had sugar or not.

And before you say “Oh no, that doesn’t apply to me! My kid really does go hyper on sugar!”, please just stop and don’t say it. Because it does apply to you. Unless you’ve conducted your own strictly controlled trial where your kid was randomly given either a pill full of sugar or an inactive placebo on multiple occasions (in a way that hid the identity of the pill from the kid as well) and a panel of independent raters who had no knowledge of whether your kid had had sugar or placebo evaluated the kid’s behaviour and when the codes were broken, your kid consistently scored higher for hyperactivity symptoms in the sugar condition to a statistically significant extent. Did you do that? Huh? Huh? No, I didn’t think so.

I rest my case.

(But if you did do all that, well done you on your double-blind randomised placebo-controlled study and your weird kid.)

Vreeman, R.C. & Carroll, A.E. (2008) Festive medical myths. British Medical Journal, 337:a2760. (Seriously, I love this paper. Read the whole thing here.)
Hoover, D.W. & Milich, R. (1994). Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 22(4), 501-515.

Recipe for chocolate chai madeleines (which contain 3/4 of a cup of sugar) after the cut.

Chocolate chai madeleines

185g butter
2 eggs
3/4 cup caster sugar
1 cup plain flour
2 tsp cocoa powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
100g dark chocolate, melted

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Grease the holes of a madeleine pan with butter.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Once it is completely liquid, leave it to stand for 2 minutes. Pour the clear liquid off the top into a jug, leaving the thick white sediment behind in the saucepan. Discard the sediment.

Beat eggs and sugar together until thick and pale. Sift in the flour and cocoa, then fold it into the mixture along with the clear liquid butter. Gently stir in the spices.

Put about 1 tablespoon of the mixture into each madeleine mould. Bake for 6 minutes. Allow to cool. Dip the end in melted chocolate then allow the chocolate to cool and set. Eeeeeaaaat.

  15 comments for “Gastroneuromythbusting

  1. September 28, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Jess, seriously, you’re going to make my brain explode with happiness with all of these posts. YES YES YES. And it’s like what we were discussing about the self-fulfilling prophecy/labelling theory a bit too, right? The whole sugar/red cordial moral panic has always annoyed me.

    You know what? I get hyperactive on carrots sometimes. So suck on that, child behaviour “experts”. Go do something more useful with your lecturing-time, like convincing parents not to let their 8 year olds wear bras. (Except if the kid is a boy, because then HELL YEAH anti-gender norms.)

    P.S. Thank you for your brilliant email. I shall try to reply soon, but I’m on limited internet for two reasons. 1) I have very limited internet as it’s the teaching break and I’m not going into uni as much, and 2) something that we discussed in our emails has been making me avoid my email. I’m sure you can work that one out :)

    • Jess
      September 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

      I just read a book called A Mind Of Its Own by Cordelia Fine (a psychologist at Macquarie Uni & U of Melbourne) and it’s basically all about how we can’t trust so much of what we think because our brain is just full of all these automatic processes that are supposed to make judgement and decision-making easy for us but end up making us prone to bias, prejudice, self-serving beliefs, ignoring critical but inconvenient information… lots of things that make it incredibly hard to objectively evaluate and understand what’s really going on in the world. If you can get hold of that book, do — it’s so good. I was familiar with a lot of the studies in the book already from my undergrad psych courses, but it was enjoyable to read anyway because Fine’s also an amazing writer (I think I aim to be like her with my writing, but my writing style is a bit more… insolent… and inflammatory… and maybe inelegant…)

      I’m reading Fine’s follow-up at the moment, Delusions of Gender. I think I love it even more. It’s a punch in the face to all those people out there who bang on about male and female brains being hard-wired in a fundamentally different way on a biological level that completely explains why men are good at fixing things and parking cars and women are good at intuiting people’s emotion. The book is just ruthless — it shows how people have done research into these alleged sex differences and found “evidence” that neuroscience supports the sex differences (how convenient that it also just happens to support gender stereotypes), and then Fine delivers some kick-in-the-guts rhetoric about how that research was fundamentally flawed and how more elegant studies have looked at the same thing and found no actual differences between males and females until you prime them to be aware of their gender or to think that gender matters — then they start to fulfill their own stereotypes, although their actual capabilities completely transcend the stereotypes. It’s just amazing. Get that book too while you’re at it. You won’t regret it!

      Haha I was actually thinking about trying to do something like make gender neutral cupcakes… but if I were to avoid using gendered properties (e.g. avoiding pink or blue colours), then that would be acknowledging that they exist as gendered properties, therefore I have to make bright pink cupcakes and then insist that they are gender neutral because pink shouldn’t be associated with a particular gender. And I think my point is getting totally lost… so how do I subvert dominant gender hegemonies with cupcakes? I MUST KNOW. These people are doing it wrong. Sadface.

    • September 30, 2010 at 11:37 am

      I absolutely do need to get those books – particularly the gender one, as I think we need to update our gender week readings in the course I’m tutoring. And your last point – that’s one of the things I had to keep reminding my students when we were discussing whether psychology still privileges males as the norm – some students were saying that more studies focus on women than men these days, and I had to bring them back to the idea that that isn’t so much the issue – the real issue is that the idea of men and women as being fundamentally different, and needing studies focused on each as definitively oppositional to the other, reinforces the gender norms and stereotypes and inequalities that shape social interactions on an everyday basis.

      Oh wow, if I put that paragraph in my thesis, it would need abotu seven hundred revisions.

  2. September 30, 2010 at 1:13 am

    Haha I agree with Hannah above that my brain fills to bursting when I read these posts, but I hear it’s good to keep it active (and I prefer this to studying for my exam hehe). I’d vaguely heard that the sugar hyperactivity connection was a myth, but you’ve convinced me beyond a doubt. That means I can eat more sugar, right ;p? And of course your madeleines look gorgeous.

    • Jess
      September 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

      Definitely keep that brain active, although I’m sure exam study would help with that too. ;)

  3. September 30, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Whoa you are blowing my mind right now! I totally always thought that the sugar thing was true…and I’m almost kind of sort of not really at all a DOCTOR. Craziness.

    These cookies look awesome. Only you could make double blinded studies look so tempting.

    • Jess
      September 30, 2010 at 10:40 am

      When you’re a doctor, you’ll be able to spread the truth! You’re sitting there taking someone’s blood pressure, you strike up the conversation, “So, have you heard that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity? Let me tell you all about it!” and they’ll leave with a very puzzled expression on their face because they never mentioned wanting to know anything about sugar…

  4. September 30, 2010 at 6:30 am

    No, sugar does not. I was a very active kid who didn’t like sweets. (I guess I’m making up for it now!).
    The madeleines sound exquisite. I was thinking of making some with rosewater. But you’ve inspired me to add some cardamom to that. I could add cardamom to ANYTHING.

    • Jess
      September 30, 2010 at 10:45 am

      I feel like I’ve neglected cardamom for way too long. I’ve liked chai in general for ages, but it wasn’t until I was trying to make my own chai spice mix that I realised that the dominant flavour in it is cardamom (I was adding the cardamom last, bit by bit, because I thought it would be like the ground cloves and would be awful if I put in too much — then I realised that around 40% of the spice mix should be cardamom for it to taste like chai!). So I’m using cardamom a lot more now and liking it a lot.

  5. October 1, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    I think when I have kids I’m not going to be able to resist conducting double-blind randomised placebo-controlled studies on them. pretty cookies!

    • Jess
      October 5, 2010 at 9:42 am

      Haha kids and their development would be so interesting from a psychological/neuroscientific point of view. I did some developmental psychology during my undergrad degree and seriously, kids have the craziest brains.

  6. October 5, 2010 at 9:38 am

    I guess conducting experiments is a good thing to have identical twins for. Anyone got some I can play with? :)

    • Jess
      October 5, 2010 at 9:44 am

      Absolutely, identical twins are such a huge part of research! They are very very convenient participants when you want one to act as the “control condition” for the other…

  7. Sue
    November 1, 2010 at 1:02 am

    So, can one sub the clarified butter process with good old desi ghee? What do you think?

    • Jess
      November 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm

      I’ve actually wondered about that! It would probably work, I’ve just not given it a try yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *