Does Candy Turn Kids Violent?

The other day, doing research on the Internet on unrelated topics, I stumbled upon two articles about candy. The first was the sad story of the nine-year-old Ukrainian boy who stole his parents’ life savings – which they had foolishly stored in cash under the sofa – and spent all $4,000 of it on candy. I chalked the article up to being just another one of those “Truth is stranger than fiction” stories you run across on the Net, and was about to click onwards when a link at the bottom of the page caught my eye. It was a pointer to a 2009 study that suggests that there is a link between childhood candy consumption and violence later in life.

I was hooked, and had to click on it. It pointed to research conducted at the University of Cardiff, and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Simon Moore and other authors of the study examined data from the British Cohort Study, an enormous research effort that charted the health of almost every person born in England during a particular week in April, 1970. This database collects information on over 17,000 people, who were assessed on a regular basis over the next few decades. Because they could look at data samples for this many people at ages 5, 10, and 34 years, this allowed the researchers to investigate whether the diets they ate at those early ages had any effect on them later in life. The effect they found was somewhat surprising – children who ate candy on a daily basis at age 10 were significantly more likely to have been arrested and convicted for crimes of violence as adults.

Daily candy could land you in the clink

Their findings showed that 69% of the subjects in the database who had been convicted of violent crimes consumed candy on a daily basis back when they were young. As I read these statistics, in my head I was imagining my mother saying, “Don’t eat that MARS bar, honey…you’ll end up in jail!”

If you’re the parent of a 10-year-old, before you start a top-to-bottom search of the house to ferret out any hidden violence-inducing candy, the researchers clearly warn that their research is preliminary, and needs to be followed up by more studies. As the primary study author says, “There appears to be a link between childhood diet and adult violence, although the nature of the mechanism underlying this association needs further scrutiny.” The authors also admit that there may have been factors other than a daily MARS bar that led these individuals to a life of crime. Still, even after accounting for sociological factors that could have influenced the data, they found a significant link between candy and violence.

What about candy could cause a predisposition to violence?

Those who are averse to sugar and believe that it is bad for us in many ways may feel that the sweet candies themselves are at fault, due to changes they provoked in the children’s metabolisms, brains, or both. But study author Simon Moore suggests another possible explanation: “We think that it is more to do with the way that sweets are given to children rather than the sweets themselves. Using sweets to quiet noisy children might just reinforce problems for later in life.” He further theorized that giving children candy and chocolate regularly – to quiet them down or to reward them for good behavior – may prevent them from learning about delayed gratification, and that sometimes it’s better to wait for something. This in turn may give rise to impulsive behavior, which has been linked to high rates of delinquency in children.

Reviewers of the study agree with the authors’ reluctance to say that there is a direct relationship between eating candy daily as a child and becoming violent later in life, and point out that the trends towards violence found in the study might have been caused by many other factors that the researchers did not have data for or control for. These are just statistical trends, not predictions of cause and effect.

Besides, there are plenty of other reasons to limit your children’s access to candy other than the fear that they’ll grow up to be violent criminals. A good meal is better for them than a candy bar any day, and a good hug is probably better than both. But just in case, don’t hide your life savings under the sofa.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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