Chapter 6: Sugar, artificial additives, breakfast and behaviour


‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’ was Mary Poppins’ recommendation to children back in the 60s and the Ancient Romans believed sugar to be a precious form of medicine. However, since the late 80s, sugar-rich foods have been accused of causing an increase in bad behaviour and poor concentration in young children. So should parents be concerned about giving their kids sweet treats?

Twenty years ago parents and school teachers suspected that sugar was affecting their kids. A series of scientific studies followed but researchers generally found no link between sugar consumption and unruly behaviour in normal children.1,2,3 One study in 1986 did find an increase in ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in preschool children but when this research was replicated in 1989, sugar consumption did not negatively affect their behaviour. 

A research paper in the American journal Pediatrics tested normal kids as well as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and found that sugar negatively affected the children with ADHD as it hampered their concentration when trying to do a focused task.6 Artificial additives While it was always obvious to parents that red and green cordial could send their kids into a frenzy, it was the hidden preservatives and colours in common food and drinks that largely went unnoticed. Research published in the British journal The Lancet, recently confirmed that artificial colours and preservatives causes hyperactive and unfocused behaviour in young children.7 They tested just under 300 children aged three and nine, and found that the majority in both age groups reacted negatively to the juice containing sodium benzoate and a mixture of artificial colours and additives.


  • Hyperactivity and skin rashes can be caused by yellow, red and blue food colourings.8 Most problematic are tartrazine (102, yellow), quinoline yellow (104), sunset yellow (110), carmoisine (122), ponceau 4R (124) and allura red AC (129). • Avoid the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG, 621), which is commonly found in flavoured chips, packaged savoury food, cinema popcorn, chicken salt and some Chinese take-away. MSG may also be listed as hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolysed plant protein (HPP) or natural flavour. Reactions include 96 Healthy Finalspp GJ 30/7/08 9:40 PM Page 96 behaviour problems, allergic symptoms, nausea, heart palpitations and headaches.9,10
  • Avoid the flavour enhancer ribonucleotides (635). Reactions include behaviour problems, headaches, irritable bowel symptoms, heart palpitations and itchy rash or welts.11
  • Avoid the bread preservative calcium propionate (282). Reactions include skin irritation, migraines, disruptive behaviour, irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbances.12
  • Avoid the preservative sodium benzoate (211), found in many soft drinks, pickles, sauces and fruit juices. Reactions include hyperactive and unfocused behaviour.13 You can find preservative-free and artificial colour-free alternatives at all major supermarkets and health food shops. All you have to do is check the ingredient labels. Your kids may not even know the difference as these products often look and taste the same. But you certainly will, when you see how calm, happy and focused your child can be. Foods for optimal brain function in children While taking artificial additives out of a child’s diet can make a marked difference to the behaviour of most normal children, a nutritious diet rich in brain food can benefit all children including those with ADHD and learning difficulties. To understand how dietary changes can make a remarkable difference to a child’s disposition and ability to concentrate, it’s necessary to know what nutrients the human brain needs to function optimally.

Foods for optimal brain function in children

While taking artificial additives out of a child’s diet can make a marked difference to the behaviour of most normal children, a nutritious diet rich in brain food can benefit all children including those with ADHD and learning difficulties. To understand how dietary changes can make a remarkable difference to a child’s disposition and ability to concentrate, it’s necessary to know what nutrients the human brain needs to function optimally.

A child’s brain requires special materials such as vitamins, minerals and other essential chemicals for making neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin deliver ‘packets’ of information from one part of the brain to the next. Serotonin can affect how happy a child feels.

If a child lacks the dietary ‘building materials’ for these neurotransmitters then mental disorders can develop. Foods that supply tryptophan (which converts to the neurotransmitter serotonin once ingested) include wholegrain carbohydrates, eggs, meat, bananas and yoghurt.

There is also scientific evidence that eating more of the good fats can produce bigger and better brains.14 The omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) not only increase grey matter in the emotional area of the brain, they can also decrease hyperactivity, and improve the behaviour, reading and spelling skills of children with learning difficulties.15,16,17 Scientists also suspect that omega-3 rich fish can have a positive effect on mood and may decrease a teenager’s risk of developing depression.18

As mentioned in Chapter 5, food sources of omega-3 include salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and linseeds. However, it is glucose – a simple sugar – which gives the brain energy for clear thinking, concentration and other activities on a moment to moment basis. In fact, the brain can’t function properly and begins to shut down without a steady supply of glucose or ‘blood sugar’ available in the bloodstream. This blood sugar comes from carbohydrates including the sweet ones like sugar, cereals and fruit. Ideally, a small supply of blood glucose hangs out in the bloodstream – a total of 2–3 grams – and the brain and body take what they need for energy production. When the blood’s supply of glucose falls below normal then a child’s brain function can temporarily suffer. Irritability, tiredness, dizziness, hyperactivity, aggression and blurred vision can quickly occur.

In extreme cases stupor and coma can result, however before this happens the body usually resorts to making glucose from body stores of glycogen and protein (ketones). However, this conversion to glucose is an arduous task for the body and symptoms of tiredness and irritability are common in people who skip meals or follow fad diets that are low in carbohydrates. A ‘clean’ and easily assimilated supply of glucose can only come from a daily intake of quality carbohydrates.

According to research published in the British Journal of Nutrition, eating a healthy carbohydrate-rich meal quickly enhances mental performance, particularly on demanding, long duration tasks.19,20 But not all carbohydrates are created equal. The best carbs include fresh fruit, milk, yoghurt and wholegrains such as wholegrain cereals and breads, brown rice, corn and rolled oats. Vegetables that contain carbohydrates include potatoes, sweet potato and peas.

Other carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour products have had many of the nutrients removed so while they supply a burst of glucose for short-term brain energy, they don’t offer long-term energy or any sustenance for neurotransmitter production. Researchers at the Institute of Medicine in Washington, DC say young children need to eat about 130–160 grams of fibrerich carbohydrates each day for maximum brain function (more for older children). This means children should have a small serve of grain-based food, fruits and vegetables with their daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. (See Appendix 1 for a sample meal plan for children which includes carbohydrate and fibre intake.)


Breakfast is also essential for optimal brain function in children. Overnight the body enters a fasting period during rest and breakfast breaks this fast, replenishing the body’s supply of glucose. However, 8–10 per cent of primary school children skip breakfast on a regular basis and this figure dramatically increases with age to 15–30 per cent during adolescence.21 When a child refuses to eat breakfast their ability to concentrate and focus in the morning can be diminished. A healthy breakfast quickly restores optimal brain function, concentration and stamina.

Breakfast consumption may also improve memory, test grades and school attendance according to research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 22 Breakfast options include eggs, sardines or beans on grainy toast, or rolled oats and other healthy breakfast cereals plus a piece of fresh fruit. (See Recipes in Appendix 4 for more ideas). However, as a parent it can be a daunting task choosing the right breakfast for your child.

Store bought cereals are often the quick and easy option but many children’s breakfast cereals contain excessive amounts of sugar and salt and are far too low in fibre. Each year Choice Magazine releases an unbiased review on children’s breakfast cereals which you can view online (see Resources on page 150 for website details). They recently praised a small Australian cereal manufacturer for improving their children’s breakfast cereal by lowering the sugar and salt content and doubling the fibre.23

So some breakfast cereal manufacturers are making healthy changes to their products. In the meantime, how can parents spot a decent children’s breakfast cereal in an overstocked shopping aisle? The best way to compare products is to look at the Nutrition Information box at the side of the packet in the ‘Quantity per 100g’ column. Look for:

  • Sugar content. No more than 20g per 100g. Less would be ideal but not if your child then adds sugar on top. You are better off hiding the sugar bowl from your family to get them out of the habit of adding sugar to their meals (as the amount often increases over time). If buying a children’s breakfast cereal containing sugar make sure it has plenty of fibre (see below).
  • Dietary fibre content. More than 5g per 100g. Cereals containing wholegrains supply more fibre so look for at least 50 per cent wholegrain content (this information is often displayed at the front of the packet). • Salt content. 120mg of sodium per 100g is a low salt product. Less than 300mg per 100g is okay. • Saturated fat content. Less than 3g per 100g.
  • Total fat content. Less than 10g per 100g.24


Add fresh fruit such as banana or blueberries to your child’s breakfast cereal and sprinkle on a teaspoon of ground linseed meal for added omega-3, fibre and antioxidants. If using soy milk make sure it has added calcium and check the ingredient panel to ensure it is made from ‘whole soybean’, not poor quality ‘soy isolate’.

The sweet solution

While excess sugar consumption seems to mainly affect the behaviour of sensitive children with learning problems, all children can benefit from having less sugar in their diet. Processed sweet food such as pastries, cakes, biscuits and lollies will give them a quick boost of energy but soon after they can have a rebound energy slump. This will often make a child crave another snack to replenish the blood’s glucose supply. However, you don’t want their blood sugar levels rapidly rising and falling like this as it’s not good for their health or their mental capacity. It can also lead to overeating. Your aim is to keep their blood sugar levels steady with healthy and regular meal breaks (not to be confused with grazing all day).

Excess glucose in the blood can damage blood vessels and blood cells. A healthy body ensures this doesn’t happen by processing the surplus glucose into glycogen and storing it in the liver for later energy requirements. However, people have a limit to how much glycogen they can hold in the liver and once it’s full the body resorts to storing the excess in fat cells, which have unlimited reserves. This can eventually lead to obesity. (Yes it’s not just fatty food that can make a child overweight: fat-free sugar lollies and low calorie junk food can too.) However, the good news is the amount of glycogen stored in the liver can be increased, and the amount stored in fat cells can decrease if your child exercises on a daily basis and eats a healthy diet.

While I believe it’s okay to give kids sweet treats on occasion (especially on set days or special events), it’s always good to make sure they eat hearty and healthy food beforehand. This decreases their risk of blood sugar highs and lows, and lessens the likelihood of a disruptive tantrum. 

  • You can limit how much sugar your child consumes by checking ingredient labels for hidden sugars. Look for words ending in ‘ose’ such as fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose, and syrups such as corn syrup and maple syrup.
  • Honey and molasses are sugars which also contain beneficial minerals such as chromium, but they should only be consumed in moderation.
  • Fruit is rich in fruit sugar, however children should have two pieces each day as fruit is also packed with vitamins, minerals and water.
  • If your child is craving something sweet, always offer fruit first as it’s nature’s candy. • If buying the occasional fruit juice for your child make sure it has no added sugar or artificial preservatives and dilute it with water.

Water should be your child’s first drink of choice.

FAQ: ‘I don’t allow my child to eat lollies but occasionally her friends give them to her and then she tries to be sneaky and hide them from me. What should I do?’

If your child is deliberately trying to hide lollies from you then you can benefit from marketing healthy food to your child, with the addition of negatively marketing junk food (as described in Chapters 3 and 4). You also need to work out what you value the most. In the long run, is honesty more important than the occasional treat? I think so.

When your child is a teenager you want them to be able to tell you the truth without fear of punishment. Teenagers don’t always do the right thing but they need to know that whatever happens they can come to you for help or advice without you judging them harshly. And children feel closer to parents whom they can be honest and open with, even if the parent is not going to like the truth. In the past when I’ve caught my daughter hiding lollies from me I’ve said ‘I know you’re eating a lolly but I would rather you be honest with me than try to hide it.

You can finish the lolly if you promise to be honest with me next time’. I make her promise to tell me the truth and I let her eat the lolly so she knows she can safely be honest with me in future. I’ll also talk to her about junk food at a later date. Children who feel they can be honest with their parents are happier and easier to manage. No matter what you feed your child, keep in mind they have their own will and can get tired, irritable and be less than wonderful sometimes (just like you). Healthy food does not make a child perfect but it does help them concentrate better and perform at their best when they’re also well rested and nurtured.

Key points to remember

  • Avoid artificial food colours.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners and flavourings such as MSG (621) and ribonucleotides (635).
  • Buy preservative-free bread (they are naturally preserved with vinegar and salt). * Foods for optimal brain function include omega-3 rich fish, linseeds (flaxseeds), wholegrain bread (the grainier the better), rolled oats and vegetables (especially the dark leafy greens).
  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It improves morning brain function, decreases the likelihood of binge-eating later in the day and reduces your child’s chances of becoming overweight.
  • Check ingredient labels in the ‘Quantity per 100g’ column.
  • Limit your child’s salt and sugar consumption and increase their fibre intake. (See One day meal plan for children in Appendix 1.)


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