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If Australians lack self-restraint, then what does that mean for democracy, elections and freedom of choice? Anyway, here are two Australians against government banning/taxing of sugar: (Both authors happen to be women; it is a pity that women are so often excluded from debate.)

1. Carla Zampatti, My life, my look (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2016), p. 25: “Too much sugar is supposed to be bad for you, but it certainly helps when it comes to making new friends.”

2.
Bettina Arndt, “Don’t believe all that sweet talk,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, October 28, 1998, p. 13.

Kids on the rampage? Before you blame an overdose of sugar, science suggests another culprit.

The mother had her hands full, caring for a young baby. But she kept a stern eye on her husband’s attempts to control their noisy, squirming toddler as the plane prepared for landing.

“I told you not to feed her those lollies,” she hissed at him as the child’s squealing reached new heights. The mother was so convinced that sugar was to blame for her child’s restlessness that she didn’t seem to notice that the little girl settled down within minutes of landing, suggesting, perhaps, that she was more bothered by her ears than an overdose of sweets.

It is quite remarkable how the link between sugar and difficult behaviour in children continues to capture the public imagination. Junk food, sweets of any kind, are seen to have disastrous effects on children, turning even the most mild-mannered into rampaging monsters. Tears or tantrums at a birthday party are blamed not on overexcitement but on sticky, sugary party food.

I recently listened to a headmaster briefing parents whose young children were about to sit for an exam. The children would have a half-time break and it would be a good idea to give them a snack. “But not too much sugar,” he warned. “We don’t want them bouncing off the walls.”

Yet, for the past 30 years, research has been accumulating to suggest the theory is flawed. There is no scientific evidence that sugar in the form of sweets or chocolate leads to disruptive behaviour in children, nor does it reduce their attention span or affect cognitive performance.

A 1996 review of all research available on the association between sugar consumption and hyperactive behaviour, published in the United States journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, found no evidence in support of this connection: “Although sugar is widely believed by the public to cause hyperactive behaviour, this has not been scientifically substantiated,” the scientists concluded. “None of the studies testing candy or chocolate found any negative effect of these foods on behaviour.”

So sugar simply doesn’t give the quick hit that is commonly assumed. But what confuses the issue is that junk food — like sweets and soft drinks — often contains synthetic food colouring which can cause children to become irritable, inattentive and “hyped up”.

Yet here, too, the link is often exaggerated. In the normal population, only 2 or 3 per cent of children show this sensitivity and even among children diagnosed as hyperactive, a majority do not show this connection.

When it is suspected that a child’s behaviour is changing in response to certain foods, it is important to investigate carefully and, where necessary, eliminate the food culprits from the child’s diet. But we are talking small numbers here, a problem affecting perhaps a couple of children in each classroom rather than most of the school.

Of course, it is difficult for parents to get the issue into perspective when misleading books and articles continue to be published which continue to perpetuate these myths. Yet nutritionists and medical authorities have been trying for years to present the true situation – with remarkably little effect.

And that’s what’s fascinating. However much the public is educated about this issue, many parents seem determined not to let this one go. What’s really worrying about the persistence of such beliefs is the effect they have on parents’ assessments of their children’s behaviour.

In one study, parents who believed that sugar caused adverse effects were told children had been given sugar when they had in fact been given a placebo. The result was that they rated their children’s behaviour as having deteriorated significantly. And, as we all know, children are so very good at living down to parental expectations.

So what’s it all about? Why do parents seem so determined to blame sugar and junk food for children’s bad behaviour? According to child psychiatrists, there’s a simple explanation. It’s just so much easier to blame children’s playing up on food than to have to consider the alternatives: that you might not be doing a great job as a parent or that this is a less than perfect kid.

Sugar and junk food are such useful villains. They’re everywhere.

Even if you watch your children like hawks, there’s always someone who could be slipping sugar to them. A doting grandma who just can’t resist giving them treats, or teachers running nutritionally unsound school cooking classes. However carefully you read the labels, those loathsome food manufacturers are probably putting one over you.

So parents are faced with an enemy that is ubiquitous and uncontrollable. And always there to be blamed when children start acting up. How perfect.

Yet it is far from perfect for children whose parents are in the thrall of such theories. For them, every birthday party becomes an ordeal as they yearn to be part of the crowd by joining in the rush for the chocolate crackles. What a strain the issue places on relations with others caring for these children — the teachers, grandparents and child-carers charged with maintaining vigilance against the enemy foods.

And children, being cunning creatures, quickly learn there’s value in playing the game, avoiding taking responsibility for their own behaviour by claiming it must have been something they ate.

But perhaps most worrying of all about the persistence of these myths is that they suggest science doesn’t carry clout any more. That, however hard the researchers work to tease out the truth about such theories, people prefer to do their own thing.

To listen to the latest crackpot theory and run their lives accordingly. It’s a trend to make us fear for the future.

[Further reading for Economics.org.au readers
John Singleton, “Protect who from a ‘mindless’ wife?,” Advertising & Newspaper News, September 19, 1969, p. 4.]