Effects of diets high in sucrose or aspartame on the behavior and cognitive performance of children

N Engl J Med. 1994 Feb 3;330(5):301-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199402033300501.


Background: Both dietary sucrose and the sweetener aspartame have been reported to produce hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children.

Methods: We conducted a double-blind controlled trial with two groups of children: 25 normal preschool children (3 to 5 years of age), and 23 school-age children (6 to 10 years) described by their parents as sensitive to sugar. The children and their families followed a different diet for each of three consecutive three-week periods. One diet was high in sucrose with no artificial sweeteners, another was low in sucrose and contained aspartame as a sweetener, and the third was low in sucrose and contained saccharin (placebo) as a sweetener. All the diets were essentially free of additives, artificial food coloring, and preservatives. The children's behavior and cognitive performance were evaluated weekly.

Results: The preschool children ingested a mean (+/- SD) of 5600 +/- 2100 mg of sucrose per kilogram of body weight per day while on the sucrose diet, 38 +/- 13 mg of aspartame per kilogram per day while on the aspartame diet, and 12 +/- 4.5 mg of saccharin per kilogram per day while on the saccharin diet. The school-age children considered to be sensitive to sugar ingested 4500 +/- 1200 mg of sucrose per kilogram, 32 +/- 8.9 mg of aspartame per kilogram, and 9.9 +/- 3.9 mg of saccharin per kilogram, respectively. For the children described as sugar-sensitive, there were no significant differences among the three diets in any of 39 behavioral and cognitive variables. For the preschool children, only 4 of the 31 measures differed significantly among the three diets, and there was no consistent pattern in the differences that were observed.

Conclusions: Even when intake exceeds typical dietary levels, neither dietary sucrose nor aspartame affects children's behavior or cognitive function.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Aspartame / administration & dosage*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology
  • Child
  • Child Behavior*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / pharmacology*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Humans
  • Sucrose / administration & dosage*
  • Sucrose / blood


  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Sucrose
  • Aspartame