In the 1800s, the average American consumed 12 pounds of sugar per year. By 1975 after the overwhelming success of the refined-food industry, the 12 pounds had jumped to 118 pounds per year, and jumped again to 137.5 pounds per capita (for every man, woman, and child) by 1990. (Food Consumption, Prices and Expenditures, United States Department of Agriculture, 1991).
The topic of children’s behavior being affected by sugar is hotly debated. Controlled studies have have not found hypoglycemia in children who have consumed large amounts of sugar. Yet this topic comes up again and again as parents and people who work closely with children are certain of changes in children’s behavior after they’ve eaten sugar.
Interestingly, an article appeared in the February 1996 edition of the "Journal of Pediatrics" which contrasted with prior studies as it not only measured blood sugar levels but also took into account the release of adrenaline when blood sugar levels fall. It is well established that as the blood glucose level drops a compensatory release of adrenaline occurs (this is a survival mechanism which ultimately stimulates the body to release glucose from storage in the case that a meal is not coming). When the blood glucose level falls below normal, the resulting situation is called hypoglycemia. Signs and symptoms that accompany this include shakiness, sweating, and altered thinking and behavior.
The study demonstrated that this adrenaline release occurs at higher glucose levels in children than it does in adults. In children, it occurs at a blood sugar level that would not be considered hypoglycemic in adults. The authors reason that the problem is not sugar, per se, but highly refined sugars and carbohydrates, which enter the bloodstream quickly and produce more rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels.
In another study scientists found that in addition to children having the adrenaline release sooner than adults, it is also twice as high as adults and remains elevated for an extended period. Symptoms of this “fight or flight” state induced by the hormone Epinephrine(adrenaline)is shakiness, anxiety, excitement and concentration problems.
Giving your child meals that contain fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and protein (nuts, beans, eggs, meats, fish, poultry) will help to stabilize blood sugar levels preventing the early adrenaline surge, and ensuring a consistent amount of time between snacks and meals will prevent hypoglycemia. I don't know about you, but for me shakiness, anxiety, excitement, sweating, altered behavior and concentration problems are NOT what my children (and I) need in our day.
The other concern related to children eating sugar is the link between sugar and cancer. “Sugar feeds cancer” is a statement that we should all be familiar with. The short explanation for a complicated process is that sugar ultimately changes the pH of body tissues rendering it a more favorable environment for cancer to proliferate, fatiguing the body and interfering with the assimilation of nutrition. This refers mainly to the sugar sucrose, or white table sugar, and is not the same with fructose, or naturally occurring sugar from fruit which, due to the high fiber content, creates a slower more sustained glycemic curve with fewer deleterious health effects.
More healthy alternatives to sugar are maple syrup, agave syrup, raw honey (for children over 14 months)and Rapadura sugar from dehydrated sugar cane. Maple syrup is minimally processed and still retains many nutritional properties. Agave and raw honey are raw, unprocessed foods. Dehydrated sugar cane still maintains many trace minerals, contains fiber and is also considered a minimally processed whole food. I have had great success simply halving the suggested amounts of sugar in recipes, and replacing "sugar" with the alternatives listed above. The delicious treats you make with these sugar alternatives will satisfy even the sweetest tooth.