The Real Reason Our Kids Crave Candy

Chow on 09.28.11
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Photo credit Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images

It goes by several names on the street -- Bottle Caps, jelly beans, Gummis and lollis -- but it's best known to parents as the Candy Menace. So called because it can fuel a five-minute jam session of whining for said candy, and once administered can turn your sweet dove of a child into a wild-eyed whirling dervish.

Candy is to kids as brains are to zombies. And the zombie parallel doesn't stop there: Witness the blank stare that comes over a child's face when encountering a sugary confection, the outstretched-arm-walk as the siren call of penny candy in gleaming glass jars bellows in their ears. The slow-mo beating of fists against the barrier (you or the jar) keeping the kid-candy-zombies from their hearts' desire.

Hardwired for Sugar
Now science has corroborated what we've long suspected -- that a child's dedication to candy is deeper than just scoring a sugary fix -- and the findings are fascinating. According to recent research, as reported by NPR, "kids' sugar craving might be biological." (Also check out Parentables Jenni Grover on the topic -- she's got some wise words on the subject from the perspective of a dietitian and mom.)

In fact, kids have a completely different sensory palette than adults when it comes to food, particularly sugary foods. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense since sugar provides a burst of quick-and-easy energy in the form of glucose, and glucose is quite a prize when you're surviving in an environment where food is hard to come by. So the logic is that kids' preternatural desire to consume sweets would have been an evolutionary advantage when calories were scarce. Leading to the conclusion that our tots are hardwired to love it.

Taking Their Sugar Lumps Straight Up
Researcher Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses center says,"[Kids] prefer much more intense sweetness and saltiness than the adult, and it doesn't decrease until late adolescence. And we have some evidence they may be more sensitive to bitter taste." Not only that, but get this: Candy is a natural pain reliever in little ones. Sucrose solutions given to newborns receiving circumcisions and babies receiving immunizations were met with a significant decrease in pain.

But back to children's palettes and their insatiable thirst for the sugary stuff. When Mennella's researchers studied sucrose preferences in adults and children they found that adults preferred a ratio of sugar and water on par with cola. Kids, on the other hand, preferred twice the amount of sugar. And younger children had no limit when it came to consuming sugar water -- for them, it would be more like, "Heavy on the sugar, light on the water. If you know what I mean (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)."

Dealing with the Halloween Hoard
Of course the challenge today for parents in industrialized countries like the U.S.,  is that food sources generally aren't scarce (a wonderful thing, really), and for the most part our kids aren't in need of a quick glucose fix to keep them propped up until their next proper meal. But knowing the impetus of their sugar lust can help us better understand the zombified looks in their eyes when they encounter a candy bar the size of their heads -- and the insistence that they must.consume.it.right.now. They really, really, really don't need it; but they can convince you otherwise.

So far our little tyke has sampled cookies, cakes and Popsicles, but she's yet to partake in candy (right, grandparents?). We're saving candy as motivation in our grand experiment to teach our toddler about the money basics. In the meantime we can all be armed with the knowledge that we now know that it's perfectly normal that our children's post-Halloween hoards are being guarded by them as if they were the last stashes of sweets in existence. Sort of like a post-apocalyptic-zombie-film plot.

Happy Early Halloween!

Thanks to Stuff to Blow Your Mind co-host, Robert Lamb, for the tip-off on this story.

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