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The Informed Parent

Sugar Gets A Bum Rap

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 05, 1998

"Don't feed your child a high sugar breakfast before school," exhorts the teacher. "It will get them all buzzed up, and it will be too difficult to teach them."

The parents knowingly nod in agreement to each other. One informed mother raises her hand to add, "It is my policy to remove the sugar bowl from the table!" Proud of her bold advise she looks about for approval.

It is interesting how quickly misinformation is substantiated and spread as fact. Many of you reading this are wondering, what is Dr. Samson talking about? Everyone knows that sugar creates a "buzz" in children. However, many times "what everyone knows" is far from reality. The world of parenting is filled with many myths, promulgated as truths.

Myths are not maliciously started to delude well-meaning parents. They are usually based on observations, incorrectly concluded. It is true that some children have been observed to become "hyper" when they eat or drink sweetened substances. The conclusion that the offending sweetener was refined cane or beet sugar was incorrect. For some time now the most common commercial sweetener is corn. Yes, not cane or beet sugar, but corn syrup. Herein lies the basis for giving sugar a bum wrap. The conclusion that sugar things caused behavior changes seemed logical, but was incorrect.

In recent years several good articles in the medical literature have proven that refined beet or cane sugar actually acted as a soporific. Information of the past transmitted via the traditional grandmother-to-mother pipeline contradicted itself. In some societies it was and still is common practice to dip a pacifier in the sugar bowl before inserting into the baby's mouth. Was this done to make the little one hyperactive? Certainly not! It was done to calm him; it was used as a soporific.

The same traditional source of information carried two diametrically opposed "truths." Both were believed as "fact," and this belief system conveyed the following messages:

1. a pacifier laced with sugar will help your baby calm down

2. food or drink containing sugar will cause a child to become hyperactive.

A recent article in a reputable medical journal showed and recommended the use of a sugar sweetened pacifier to calm babies down before undergoing a procedure or submitting to a shot.

All "sweetened" food and drink are not the same. A close look at the labels makes this apparent. Due to manufacturing cost factors, corn sweeteners have become the sweetener of choice for American food companies. This substance is growing on the international level yearly. The

Los Angeles TIMES recently reported many Hawaiian sugar plantations have closed as a result of the lack of demand for their product. This gives you an idea of the extent that corn sweeteners are circling the globe.

Lest you get the impression that all children suffer a negative behavioral change when ingesting corn sweeteners, let us clarify: it appears to be a significant percentage, but certainly not all children. On the other hand, the number of children who become overactive after taking refined sugar is minute. In my own experience of 27 years in practice, I have cared for only two patients with a hyperactive reaction to sugar, and hundreds who have experienced negative behavior changes with corn sweeteners.

The most common negative behavior as a result to corn sweeteners is hyperactive behavior. But a significant number of people experience depression, easy distraction, disorganization, difficult learning or chronic fatigue. The term "people" is used because the same effects can be found in adults as well as children.

Not long ago a 12-year-old boy was brought to me who exhibited ADHD behavior some days but perfect calmness others. Whenever he had corn sweetened substances he was difficult to control; a real "Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome." His problem was solved by diet control, not stimulant medication. The clue to the diagnosis was inconsistent appearance of symptoms.

His father, who had been treated for chronic fatigue and depression for years with many medications, observed his son and applied the same advise to himself. Within four weeks all of his symptoms were in complete remission. Doubting the response he went back on corn sweeteners and the symptoms returned. He repeated this test twice before accepting his plight. To this day he has remained corn free and symptom free.

Anecdotes do not prove a concept, but do illustrate the variability of expression to the problem. This scenario has been duplicated so many times there is no doubt that children and adults can experience detrimental behavioral changes when introducing corn sweeteners into their metabolic systems again. This does not mean all humans are bothered by this ubiquitous product. But a significant number are, and it can greatly impact their lives.

How can one tell if the unwanted behavior is caused by corn sweeteners or refined sugar? Make a water solution of sugar by adding 4 teaspoons of table sugar to 100 ml. of water. If your child has problems with blood sugar control, diabetes mellitus or hypoglycemia consult your physician before doing this. Hyperactive behavior can be seen within 15-to-30 minutes after ingestion if it is caused by refined sugar.

Repeat the same test on a subsequent day using corn syrup sweetened foods, or make a similar solution with corn syrup. Again, after repeating the test on several days, a relationship between behaviors and sweetening agents may become clear.

To confirm the relationship, a corn-free diet is needed. It must be free of corn, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and corn sweeteners. In a matter of 7-to-14 days the negative behavior will decrease or disappear. If one wishes to rechallenge the child with a diet containing corn, look for a recurrence of that behavior.

One must remember that when the corn sweeteners are stopped the child is then allowed to have refined sugar sweetened products. A source of quick energy carbohydrate is necessary for the body. Check with your child's physician before launching into a permanent diet alteration.

Complete avoidance of corn products necessitates a great deal of home food preparation. Corn products are in almost all commercially prepared foods made in the United States. A slight slip allowing it back into the diet and the symptoms recur within a short time.

The use of neutrasweet products in place of corn sweetened items is acceptable for most people. But there are a small percentage of individuals who develop psychological and neurological symptoms when ingesting aspartame. Also, neutrasweet has no real nutritional value and does not supply carbohydrate generated energy.

In summary, the percentage of children who react to corn sweeteners is relatively small. Yet, it is sufficient to cause people to generate a myth about sweets and behavior change. Removing corn products from children who are not affected causes no beneficial results. If behavior on a corn free diet does not change, it makes no sense to continue this difficult diet.

The next time you hear "sugar makes kids hyper," remember this article and end a myth. Above all, keep your child's physician informed of any dietary changes and get advice before making a special diet a permanent one.

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