Tootsie rolls and jellybeans, Snickers bars and Jujubees — these are among the things that send kids into ecstasy. But in one of life’s first cruel ironies, children learn that they pay a price for eating candy. It causes cavities. It causes pimples. It causes bouncing off the walls. It consumes the allowance. And now, a new study says that candy may cause a life of crime.
The research, out of Cardiff University in the U.K., culled data from a long-term study of 17,000 people all born during the same week in 1970. The subjects were followed from birth, periodically answering questions about their lives, their diet, and their health. (Obviously, they were very literate toddlers.) Study director Simon Moore recently reviewed the collected data, looking for links between early diet and later behavior. He discovered that of those subjects convicted of a violent crime by age 34, 69 percent reported that they had eaten candy almost every day in childhood. Of those without criminal records, only 42 percent had been daily candy connoisseurs.
No, the study wasn’t underwritten by Willy Wonka’s nemesis, Ansel Slugworth. In fact, the researchers kept reviewing the data, trying to find some other factor to explain the link. They checked to see if economic status was to blame, or maybe parental permissiveness, or living in a city versus the country, or educational level — but none of these factors made a difference. Candy consumption in childhood still correlated to violent crime later on.
Dr. Moore said, “Initially we thought this [effect] was probably due to something else. So we tried to control for parental permissiveness, economic status, whether the kids were urban or rural. But the result remained. We couldn’t get rid of it.”
So is there some crazy-making component in candy that builds up like plaque, eventually causing violence? Moore thinks it’s possible, but it’s more likely that kids who eat candy daily don’t learn impulse control. (Or is it that kids with inherently less impulse control eat more candy because they lack the control?) He also thinks it’s possible that “bad kids” were given candy more regularly to appease them. If this is so, the candy would work much like it did for Skinner’s mice, teaching kids that bad behavior gets a sweet reward. (Or again, is it a question of inherent bad behavior self selecting for more candy consumption?)
Critics, of course, think Moore is leaping to conclusions that don’t hold up. The director of the Food and Drink Federation, Julian Hunt (a totally impartial observer), said, “This is either utter nonsense or a very bad April Fool’s Day joke! Antisocial behavior stems from deep-rooted social and environmental factors such as poor parenting and a deprived upbringing, and is not linked to whether or not you ate sweeties as a kid.” (Of course, that’s merely Ms. Hunt’s personal opinion, unsupported by any data.)
And Melinda Johnson, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said, “If there is any real link, my instinct is that the daily candy may be indicative of certain lifestyle factors that the researchers did not capture. For example, I do not see that the researchers were able to control for violence in the home. Perhaps children who end up violent as adults also tend to grow up in violent homes, and perhaps candy is used excessively as an ‘ease the pain’ tool.” (Again, an opinion based on “instinct,” not data.)
But in fact, there are huge loopholes in the study. For instance, only 35 out of the 17,000 subjects actually were convicted of violent crimes. That means that 24 of those criminals had a candy eating past, and that’s a very small sample upon which to build a theory. Consider that 7,140 out of the 17,000 ate candy every day and never turned to violent crime. And then, as numerous critics pointed out, there are plenty of factors not controlled for. Did those same 24 criminals, for instance, drink water every day? Did they wear sneakers every day — more days than those not convicted of crimes? Could sneakers and water be a recipe for creating miscreants — even more so than eating Milky Ways? More research needs to be done to confirm that in fact, candy independently correlates to a dissolute life.
Even so, there’s no denying that sugary foods influence behavior. Ask any third-grade teacher what happens after the kids finish devouring a big candy bar, or after they drink a few sodas. Behavioral problems abound when sugary foods prevail. Does the phrase “bouncing off the walls” ring a bell? Also, it may be that those who start eating candy daily in childhood pave the path for a lifetime of poor nutrition. And poor nutritional choices certainly may correlate to poor behavioral choices. In fact, a recent study out of Oxford University found that prisoners who took vitamin supplements had fewer disciplinary problems and were less aggressive than those who took placebos. Numerous studies have shown that foods and various additives affect both mood and behavior. So, maybe the old adage may need to be rephrased: “Spare the nutrition and ruin the child.”