Cognitive Daily

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifConventional wisdom has it that giving young children chocolate will cause them to become fidgety. This belief is so pervasive that many parents won’t give their kids candy within several hours of bedtime, convinced their children won’t be able to sleep. After Halloween, many parents ration their kids’ candy consumption, again based at least partly on the belief that too much candy will cause kids to go bonkers.

But when Michelle Ingram and Ronald Rapee became interested in the phenomenon, they were surprised to find that in fact very little research has been done on the effect of chocolate on children’s behavior. While several studies have found very small behavioral effects of artificial flavoring and coloring, the limited research on sugar consumption has found no effects. Some studies have found that exposing children to large quantities of caffeine does affect behavior, but the amounts involved substantially exceed what is found in a typical candy bar.

Despite this lack of evidence, when Ingram and Rapee approached five preschools to ask them to participate in a study of the effects of chocolate on behavior, two schools turned them down because they were certain that the chocolate would adversely affect the kids. Nonetheless, they persisted, and the resulting study of 26 four-year-old preschoolers is the largest study of the effect of chocolate on children.

The study design was simple: the experimenters videotaped children while they were being read a seven-minute-long story. Then the children were fed a snack of either three Freddo Frogs (the most popular children’s chocolate in Australia) or the equivalent weight of dried fruit (45 grams — roughly equal to a typical 1.5-ounce American candy bar). All the kids in each class ate the same snack. This was a lot of chocolate for these kids: in most cases, the experimenters had to coax the children to eat the third frog. Then, after playing for 30 minutes, the children were read another seven-minute story. One week later, each class got to repeat the experiment with the other type of food, so every child had one chocolate snack and one fruit snack, and heard four different seven-minute stories.

Each child’s behavior was then rated by trained observers who were unaware of the study conditions. Here are the results:

i-801cacde1dd53a4cdaaaf9f48a926534-Ingram.gif

Ratings were broken into two categories: objective, which measures specific actions such as getting up, fidgeting, talking, etc., and subjective, where the observers rated each child on a subjective scale for the overall levels of movement and concentration. As you can see, there was no difference between the subjective ratings for behavior before or after eating chocolate or fruit. The slight increases in objective behavior measures were not significant. The only significant difference, in fact, was that overall on fruit days, the objective measures showed more activity and less concentration compared to the chocolate days.

This suggests that other phenomena such as weather, other goings-on in the classroom, and so on, are much more likely to affect behavior than the particular food a child eats. There is no evidence to suggest that eating chocolate significantly affects preschoolers’ behavior. Unfortunately, the study has little to say about what happens when your 12-year-old consumes six pounds of candy after trick-or-treating for four hours.

Ingram, M., & Rapee, R.M. (2006). The effect of chocolate on the behaviour of preschool children. Behaviour Change, 23(1), 73-81.

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Simmons
    November 2, 2006

    “Unfortunately, the study has little to say about what happens when your 12-year-old consumes six pounds of candy after trick-or-treating for four hours.”

    My 11-year-old was really sick to his stomach. So there’s a data point for you …

  2. #2 Ed S.
    November 2, 2006

    Chocolate before bed makes me fidgety, but I’m 54. When I was a kid, my best friend’s Mom would not let him chew bubble gum because she’d heard that the suction would loosen teeth. Then, of course, we had to hide under the front porch and chew huge wads of gum just to see if it would really happen.

  3. #3 Ray
    November 3, 2006

    But chocolate contains caffeine (at least some amount of caffeine). In theory, the caffeine should interfere with the child’s ability to sleep.

    It would be interesting if someone did a study where they fed different types of chocolate (with varying cocoa concentrations) to children one hour before bed, and then measured whether they have trouble sleeping. I would suspect that unless a child ate a LOT of milk chocolate, it wouldn’t bother them too much. Everyone knows that the darker the chocolate, the higher the caffeine concentration.

  4. #4 Stephen Uitti
    November 3, 2006

    My nine year old is basically hyper while awake. So, i routinely offer him candy if he does something he’s supposed to do. We also do a thorough teeth brushing too… to cover the main drawback.

    This policy has gotten him through five years of violin. He’s pretty good at it. (One would expect that i’m biased. But i have compared him to other nine year olds with similar history, and he still does well. Also, he’s a good deal better than i am.)

  5. #5 anomalous4
    November 3, 2006

    This reminds me of a double-blind study I read about several years ago in which young kids were given either a sugary drink or an artificially sweetened drink, after which the experimenters and the parents sat behind one-way glass and watched the kids’ behavior.

    Observers who didn’t know which kids had had which drink reported no significant difference in the the kids’ actual behavior – but the parents who thought their kids had gotten real sugar were significantly more likely to report that the kids were acting up!

    Personally, I never noticed a difference in the way my son acted “on” or “off” sugar. I myself suffer from depression (for which I’m on meds long-term) and have mild ADD (for which I was on meds several years ago but had to quit because they were too expensive), and I’ve found that sugar is a terrific mood booster, as is chocolate (which is also good for my focus).

    Neither makes me “hyper”; in fact, sugar seems to act as a mild tranquilizer. If I can’t get to sleep at night, eating something sweet – a lump of brown sugar is my favorite – will often put me right out. Besides, it’s a lot cheaper than pills, and I don’t wake up groggy the next morning.

    It goes without saying that no two people’s reactions are ever the same. I know two people (one of whom is my brother) who can’t eat chocolate or drink even decaffeinated coffee because it wires them so badly.

    Different strokes for different folks………..

  6. #6 Carol
    November 12, 2006

    I once sat across the table from a child (I think he was four) who had been allowed a rarely-offered chocolate desert. He was so incredibly excited that he absolutely could not contain himself between the time the chocolate was placed in front of him and the time he actually got the first bite. And he was unusually unable to sit still between the time the chocolate had been ordered and the time it arrived. After he ate the chocolate, he settled down. I was absolutely certain I was watching a little drug-addict get his fix! But after reading the above research, I’m left wondering about all sorts of behavior triggers – including anticipation!

  7. #7 DavidS
    November 13, 2006

    It seems to me like chocolate is a bad candy to do this study with, because it contains a lot of fat which should slow the metabolism of the sugar*. I would think hard candies, like peppermints, should give a stronger effect. I like the study comparing sweetened and artificially sweetened drinks that anomalous4 describes even better, because many of the subjects probably can’t taste the difference between sugar and artificial sweetener so psychosomatic effects are ruled out.

    * I don’t have any formal background in nutrition, but I’m diabetic and curious so I’ve read a lot of studies on food metabolism. My understanding is that high fat foods should deliver their sugar more gradually both for diabetics and non-diabetics. Experts are welcome to correct me.

  8. #8 Captain_Stupidude_version_2.0
    December 17, 2006

    i think that chocolate should have some sort of nutrition hidden inside and be secret from the world of children so they wont fuss about eating it; rather, theyd be delighted. Dont you agree? If you do, SPEAK UP ABOUT IT!!! Just not so loud as to inform kids of my plot to create healthy chocolate. yummy. mmmmmm. really good chocolate. What was the topic??? Oh well, who cares. If you care, dont bother speaking up.Everyone is too lazy to listen.

    THE END OF THE AWESOME AND ANNOYING COMMENT FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE “EVIL” PLOT TO NUTRITIONIZE MY 6 YEAR OLD

  9. #9 Captain_Stupidude_version_2.0
    December 17, 2006

    you know,how about we use this comment thing to have online chats? it would be fun, free, and anyone else visiting this site could join in too. id do capitalization correctly, but im too lazy to bother.

    THE END OF THE COMMENT FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE COMMENT ABOUT HAVING THIS SITE USED AS A CHAT ROOM OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT.

  10. the people or computers which are supposed to check these things have either taken a vacation or malfunctioned, so feel free to write whatever you want. You dont even have to input any REAL info to do it.

    THE END OF THE COMMENT FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE COMMENT REFERING TO THE FACT THAT NO ONE CHECKS YOUR MESSAGES.

  11. SEE? I TOLD YOU.

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    December 17, 2006

    I choose to keep your comments because they amuse me. Stop being amusing, and I’ll start deleting.

  13. GRRR!!!!!!!!!!

  14. You probably dont know this, but im actually much crazier in person. i think it’s because im a genius 2 year old and i can solve a rubiks cube behind my back. it only takes me about 300000000000000000000000000000 million years or so. i believe they died of boredom rather than when i put a a large amount of the poisonous substance known as Polonium-210 in their food. And water. For som e odd reason, they started saying they felt horrible and then they called 911. By the time the ambulances filled with dying people arrived, they were were laying on the floor without a pulse. The jury accused me of first-degree murder and sentenced me to death. but before i was killed, i tested out my short range atomic bomb on the site where was supposed to die. it was successful and i sold the blueprints to Korea for a few trillion dollars. i attempted to save the US from George Bush’s evil wrath when i hired an assassin from Germany to kill him.
    when that failed, i piloted planes into the north and south towers to make america think the president was truly an idiot and overthrow him. To make a long story short, it failed.

    THE END OF MY LIFE STORY.

New comments have been disabled.