While putting together a workshop on executive functions for teachers and parents, I came across studies that examine brain development across many areas of maturation. When I came across the study by Robert C. Vannucci and Susan J. Vannucci, from their article "Glucose Metabolism in the Developing Brain" in Seminars in Perinatology (Volume 24, Issue 2, April 2000), a question came to mind. The authors write that glucose plays a critical role in brain development (a given), primarily for the reason that it allows for normal "biosynthetic" processes to continue. For those who have followed my posts and videos know that I support a decrease in high fructose diets for an improvement of mood, and the cost of psychotropic medications on the alleviation of symptoms. True to task, I asked myself if there was a difference in the impact on brain development between fructose, sucrose, galactose and glucose?
The importance of glucose is clear. One study that highlights the importance is by Harry T. Chugani, MD who wrote in his article "A Critical Period of Brain Development: Studies of Cerebral Glucose Utilization with PET" in Preventative Medicine (Volume 27, Issue 2, March 1998) that glucose consumption is higher at certain periods of development, coinciding with the proliferation of neuronal connections in the brain. The author described the way different brain structures utilize glucose for greater consumption during critical periods of development of those structures (i.e. Temporal and Occipital Lobes during late infancy) and shift in degree of consumption to other areas of the brain as development progresses.
The effect of a different sugar on the brain was not found in my review of the literature (but it may be around). Studies tend to look at the physical health effects of high fructose in diets of adults, but have not explored the effects such a diet on executive functions such as self-regulation, working memory, focus, and task initiation. Without specific studies having investigated the issue, extrapolation of the data and speculation is all we have. To begin our journey into speculation, the article by George A Bray titled "How Bad is Fructose," in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Volume 86, Issue 4, 1 October 2007) will begin the discussion. The author minces no words stating that fructose is bad, that is clear, but how bad is it for infants and toddlers?
Milk, for example, literally has no fructose, which suggests that, across our genetic history, infants were minimally exposed to fructose until later in development and rarely early in infancy, when the infant relied on mother's milk. Comparatively, a child would not have been exposed to such high amounts of fructose as they are today. Bray continues by stating that there is no biological need for dietary fructose, given its difficulty in digestion and absorption and it is almost entirely cleared by the liver. Extrapolating from this information, then a developing brain, requiring an enormous amount of glucose for processing information and establishing connections, likely reacts (here's the speculation) differently when deprived of nourishment it has been pre-programmed genetically to expect across millennia. Then the question becomes: how is an infant's brain managing its energy needs with the change from primarily glucose to higher fructose in their diets?
Have you ever seen a toddler when he had been first introduced to a piece of candy? It's an experience few and far in-between have, but I have and the facial expression of a toddler having that first taste and his face was almost euphoric. Consider that there may be a problem with the efficiency the brain receives fructose as fuel, and the rate of development of age-dependent brain functions. Have you ever eaten a small bowl of M&M's, and your cravings continued despite eating an entire bowl? Well, it seems similar, enacting some brain functions to action rather than others. Keep in mind that fructose is processed in the liver before it is available for consumption, while glucose is quickly and readily available. The infant's developing brain is an adapting wonder and it is possibly learning to use energy whenever its available, which may be experienced as a deficiency with the time delay it is processed, and motivate the infant to consume more as perceived survival. However, he lacks the inhibitory functions and emotional self-regulatory components that will allow the infant or toddler to deal with the deficiency with anything other than crying, tantrums, and/or anger. The parent, acting as the surrogate for developing executive functions (such as task initiation and response inhibition).
There are many websites on infant nutrition that discuss the amount of high fructose in popular baby foods and formula. Could it be that the infant is being programmed to search for high fructose early in brain development because of deficiency? It might be, given that childhood obesity and pediatric diabetes has steadily increased, and likely due to environmental motivational factors. For example, Mexico, when NAFTA introduced the north American fast food industry to its society, as well as the change in type of sugar used in its soft drinks one of the factors, saw their obesity rates steadily increase until reaching their current distinction as the most obese country in the world. Feeling constantly hungry will surely affect the attentional systems maturing before the age of seven. There is growing evidence that suggests that children who are obese and with endocrine difficulties have greater difficulty with academic performance.
The answer is to feed your newborn and infant as all natural as you can get. The use of a Nutri-bullet or a Magic Bullet to puree vegetables and fruits for your older infant or young toddler is a great substitute for pre-packaged "baby" food. The introduction of good bacteria from vegetables and fresh fruits into the infant's microbiome is almost reason enough, however, there are many other benefits. Use breast milk whenever possible because it is the most historically congruent way to feed the infant. Avoid at all costs the introduction of candy into the child's psychological experience, which includes wrapped chocolate and soda until the child is at least six-years of age (when attentional functions in the brain have matured). For the more adventurous parents, avoid feeding anything to your child that is wrapped, boxed, or canned because all things in these packaging are made with high fructose. It will take more work in the short run, but the long-term effect will be at least a healthier teenager, and at best, anything he/she will want to be in life.