by Chelsea Jenter, MPH
For kids, sugar not only tastes good, but it makes them feel good too. This might explain my four year old’s obsession with Halloween. The Friday before last, she sprinted from house to house, as if it was her only chance to get candy in this century. And though Halloween was just two weeks ago, she’s already asking how long it is until the “next” Halloween. What is this obsession with candy? This could be a long year.
My daughter’s love affair with candy reminded me of a talk that Julie Mennella, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, gave to the Obesity Prevention Program last year. Dr. Menella talked to us about her research on the biology of taste, and how children actually process sugar differently than adults do. Kids have a bottomless appetite for sugar. From birth through adolescence, the more, the better. Sugar consumption never crosses the “sickeningly sweet” line as it does in adults. Sugar also makes kids feel good – one of the reasons sugar water is often given to infants to alleviate the pain of shots or heel sticks. Whether sugar actually relieves pain, or simply combats the pain with pleasure, is as yet unknown.
As a researcher, I wondered if I did something prenatally or in infancy to illicit this sugar craving in my child. Did I prime her obsession with those late night ice cream runs during pregnancy? Mennella’s research shows that kids are born this way – it’s biologically programmed. It is also highly correlated with a preference for high salt intake.
So what is a parent to do with the candy conundrum at Halloween (and for the daily inquiries about the “next” Halloween)? Maybe prioritize by calorie count? Find comic relief in Jimmy Kimmel’s annual Halloween-candy-stealing videos? I’m not sure of the right answer at this point, but Mennella’s article suggests the need for new strategies to improve kids’ diets. Battling the obesity epidemic has many challenges, and given all of these innate predispositions to craving salt and sugar, it is no wonder that this is an uphill battle for many kids and their parents.