Science debunks a disturbing, pervasive myth about sugar
There’s nothing “inherently wrong with sugar.”
Every year Americans buy an estimated 300,000 tons of candy for Halloween. Yet while it's the costumes and decorations that are supposed to give you a fright, many armchair nutritionists will tell you it’s actually sugar that’s the truly scary part of Halloween — especially when it comes to the mind-bending effect of the supposed sugar high.
If you’re not careful, legend says, you’ll even get addicted to the white stuff.
But is there any truth to this saccharine fear? David Benton is a professor emeritus of human and health science at Swansea University. He explains to Inverse the science behind sugar and how to indulge in it guilt-free.
Historically, sugar highs were probably one the most researched health topics, Benton says. But then there was a change: “People gave up 25-years ago because it seemed well established what the answer was.”
Can you really get a sugar high?
Several decades ago, a pervasive opinion emerged: If kids ate too much sugar, they were going to get wild. Sweets became associated with hyperactivity. Chocolate and frosting smeared children screaming and running around a birthday party could only mean one thing: a sugar high.
This notion first appeared in medical literature in the 1920s but became popularized in the mid-70s when Dr. Ben Feingold published a book titled Why your child is hyperactive. The culprit? Excess sugar consumption, Feingold said.
“I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with sugar.”
But according to science that would emerge years later, this simply wasn’t the case, Benton explains.
“This was a topic where it was possible to run properly controlled experiments, by which I mean you can have a double-blind so nobody knows what they're getting — either with sugar or with a sweetener,” Benton says. “Then you observe the child's behavior. There are dozens of studies like this and the pattern is very consistent.”
The studies suggest sugar does not cause hyperactivity.
Famously, a 1994 study on the topic published in the New England Journal of Medicine proved this beyond a reasonable doubt. As Benton adds, going wild is “just what children do at parties.”
Yet despite its thorough and science-backed debunking, this myth still follows new parents even to this day.
“I was speaking at a science festival a year or so ago and I just mentioned in passing that a sugar high was nonsense,” Benton says. “The following day it was in every newspaper in the country.”
This continued confusion may be in part associated with the tangential bad-PR that sugar receives, but it may also be related to a self-fulfilling prophecy played out between parent and child. If a parent thinks their child may be behaving hyperactively from sweets and parents harsher as a result, that in turn may encourage their child to act out.
What does sugar do to the body?
While nutrition advice of the past and present are quick to malign the ills of sugar — from hyperactivity to diabetes — Benton says it’s also important to remember sugar also positively contributes to overall health.
“Any carbohydrate — bread, potatoes, pasta — releases sugar into the bloodstream where it gets broken down and bumps up blood glucose levels,” Benton explains. “That causes the release of insulin from the pancreas because the body is trying to keep your blood glucose levels within a prescribed range. The major source of energy for all of our functioning is glucose.”
Even then, this energy is nothing close to a “high,” or even the same kind of buzz you’d get from a stimulant like coffee, Benton says.
A sugar crash, however, is a real thing and can happen when blood sugar levels drop too low or too quickly.
Can you be addicted to sugar?
Okay, so maybe you can’t really get high on sugar. But can you become addicted to sugar?
Unlike the sugar high myth, this idea is a little more complicated.
Like the desire to seek shelter and water, the desire to eat sugary or fatty foods is genetically encoded in all of us, Benton says. Our bodies have evolved to search for these foods because they’re most effective at keeping us going and giving us energy, at least in moderate amounts.
However, what our bodies haven’t evolved for, is the abundance of sugary and fatty foods at our fingertips. As a result, many first-person accounts and even scientific papers suggest that modern humans can become addicted to sugar.
Some research has gone as far as to compare sugar addiction to cocaine — although the most infamous study to do so was done at Princeton in 2008 on rats who were deprived of food, so it’s difficult to say how those results translate to people.
However, Benton argues “addiction” might be a bit of a stretch.
“We are born genetically pre-programmed to like sugar,” Benton says. “It’s not that that sugar or pleasant tasted foods, in general, have taken over addiction sites [in the brain], it’s the other way around. It's the addiction sites that have taken over the reward sites in the brain.”
It may be too soon to draw a firm conclusion on this issue, but one thing to keep in mind when judging evaluating sugar addiction research is the role restriction plays in cravings or binges.
Take the Princeton rats, for example. While they did go wild for sugar in the experiment, they were also deprived of food twelve hours a day during the trials.
Expanding this to the human scale, research on disordered eating — such as binge eating disorder — suggests food restriction can lead to binging behavior. With no-sugar crash diets and pre-holiday cleanses abounding in the wellness space, one has to wonder what role restriction plays versus clinical levels of addiction.
How to have your cake and eat it too — Like any other food, Benton says there’s nothing inherently bad about consuming sugar. Instead, nutrition is determined more by your diet as a whole and not the five... or ten... pieces of Halloween candy you ate one night.
“I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with sugar,” Benton says. “It's not so much the presence of sugar. You could say it's the absence of fruits, vegetables, grains, and cereals in sensible proportions.”
In other words, there’s no reason that sugar can’t be a part of a person’s balanced diet — just don’t have it be the main course.
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.