Trick or Treat

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Research explains kids’ cravings but fails to find evidence of ‘sugar highs’

By BONNIE ROCHMAN
Oct. 28, 2013 7:21 p.m. ET
Amid the ghosts and ghouls spooking trick-or-treaters this week, there is something even more terrifying to their parents: sugar.

Children may be more partial than adults to sugar because of the way their taste buds are clustered. “Children have the same number of taste buds as adults, but their tongue is a whole lot smaller, so the flavors are more intense the younger you are,” says Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, which researches why we eat what we do. “That’s why little kids don’t like bitter foods and really like sweet foods. The effect is magnified.”

Americans eat far more added sugar—white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrups and honey, among others—than is recommended. The average person consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, or 355 calories. Boys, ages 14 to 18, take in 34 teaspoons, or roughly 550 calories, according to the American Heart Association. Researchers say children and teens should follow recommendations for adults of no more than 9 teaspoons a day for men and 6 teaspoons for women.

U.S. government dietary guidelines use a different system, recommending that added sugars and solid fats combined, the so-called discretionary calories, should make up no more than 15% of a daily diet. However, kids and teens on average exceed this level from added sugars alone, which account for 16% of their daily total calories, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That said, most dentists aren’t overly concerned about how much candy children eat on Halloween, says Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Augusta, Maine, and a spokesman for the American Dental Association. “One day in the life of a child is not going to ruin them,” he says. “We are worried about the next three or four weeks of their candy-eating life, especially if they are a good hoarder.”

Even fastidious brushers risk eroding important minerals in teeth, which can lead to cavities, through frequent consumption of sugar, says Dr. Shenkin. If you’re going to let your kids eat candy, incorporate it into mealtimes when other carbohydrates and sugars are already being consumed to limit how often their teeth are exposed, he suggests.

Steer clear of gooey, sticky candy such as caramels, taffy and gummy bears that get wedged between teeth, he says. Chocolate—the plainer, the better—is best because it doesn’t cling to tooth surfaces. And sugarless gum can help because it increases saliva flow and gets rid of food debris, Dr. Shenkin says.

Health experts say obesity is not the primary concern with sugar intake. Research has linked sugar consumption to other health problems, including high levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the bloodstream, and cardiovascular disease. It also tends to take the place of eating more nutritious foods, meaning children might be missing out on important nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Sugar contributes to fatty liver disease, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, says Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at Benioff Children’s Hospital at the University of California, San Francisco. “We know that children accumulate more liver fat than adults do for the same amount of sugar, but we don’t know why,” says Dr. Lustig, who says he is conducting research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to find an answer.

Research in animals indicates that sugar can be addictive, but the same has yet to be proved in humans. Cravings for sugar don’t necessarily meet the technical definition of addiction, which includes components of both tolerance and withdrawal, Dr. Lustig says.

“There is absolutely no question that sugar induces tolerance,” he says. “The more you eat, the more you need to get the same reward—that deep, visceral response that says, ‘things are good.’ ” But whether people actually suffer symptoms of sugar withdrawal is less clear, Dr. Lustig says.

The body’s ability to increase its tolerance for sugar might explain why some people experience a sugar high and others don’t, suggests Dr. Lustig. “You don’t see a sugar high in adults,” he says.

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I cannot say that I have a favorite Shakespeare quote, but the witches incantation from Macbeth is close.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

On today’s date in A.D. 834, the first All Hallows’ Eve was celebrated throughout the universal church, after Pope Gregory IV moved All Saints’ Day from May 13th to November 1st. This may have been done because of Celtic influence. Celtic-speaking countries celebrated the pagan holiday of Samhain, which celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was believed that on this day the separation between this world and the next was at its thinnest. It’s possible that for purposes of evangelization, Pope Gregory harnessed this popular custom and associated it with Catholic belief in prayer for the dead.

In the Catholic Church, Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day are called ‘Hallowmas’ and are set aside to honor saints and pray for departed souls. ‪

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