The Best Vegetarian Restaurant in All 50 States

Evan Sung
Evan Sung

If "vegetarian cuisine" conjures images of flavorless tofu slabs and rubbery meat substitutes, you’ve been led astray. Stop by one of these 50 vegetarian restaurants from across the country to learn just how vibrant (and filling!) a meatless diet can be.

1. ALABAMA // EVE’S GARDEN

Location: Dothan, Alabama

When chef Kerry Brownlee opened Eve's Garden in Dothan, Alabama, three years ago, it functioned as a raw food take-out prep kitchen, with customers stopping by weekly to pick up their prepared foods. But once the public became hip to Brownlee's creative approach to vegan, mostly raw "cooking," it evolved into a full-service café. "It’s kind of grown with the needs of the public, basically," Brownless told the Dothan Eagle in 2016. The menu changes frequently in order to make the most of seasonal ingredients, but patrons always love her take on Mexican standbys like nachos, enchiladas, and tacos.

2. ALASKA // PITA PLACE

Location: Fairbanks, Alaska

Alaska’s cold climes are to thank for the popularity of such hearty regional dishes as reindeer dogs and caribou chili, but Fairbanks’s Pita Place proves that vegetarian cuisine can be just as satisfying. The seasonal Middle Eastern eatery serves up homemade falafel (order it spicy!), spreads, and pita bread baked on-premises daily. Wash down your meal with a cup of Turkish coffee and a side of walnut baklava.

3. ARIZONA // DESERT ROOTS KITCHEN

Location: Tempe, Arizona

kale salad at desert roots
Yelp, Hannah M.

The menu changes daily at this vegan café, which specializes in global cuisine made with locally sourced ingredients. One day it's Tandoori chickpeas with brown rice, the next it's dill thyme pasta with peas. Desert Roots Kitchen also offers inventive breakfast dishes and indulgent snacks. Fancy an apple cinnamon banana cupcake with coconut peanut butter glaze?

4. ARKANSAS // THE ROOT CAFÉ

Location: Little Rock, Arkansas

Although it's not strictly vegetarian, The Root offers an abundance of meat-free dishes, like the shiitake mushroom burger (made with locally sourced shiitakes, of course), spiced pecan salad, and a house salad made with feta cheese from nearby White River Creamery. The breakfast menu is no slouch, either, and offers up what might be the toughest choice of your day: eggs banh mi or tofu scrambler?

5. CALIFORNIA // GREENS

Location: San Francisco, California

sampler platter at greens restaurant
Yelp, Quyen N.

In a state chock full of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, the nod goes to a pioneer of vegetarian cuisine and the farm-to-table movement. Since 1979, Greens has been plating fresh, locally sourced dishes, including many grown on the restaurant’s own Green Gulch Farm. The classic spot continues to innovate, with options like wild mushroom shepherd’s pie and huckleberry upside down cake with Meyer lemon earning rave reviews. Even if the fare doesn’t entice you, go for the view, which overlooks the San Francisco Marina and the Golden Gate Bridge.

6. COLORADO // WATERCOURSE FOODS

Location: Denver, Colorado

"Vegan comfort food" is how this Denver establishment bills itself. And with dishes like the barbecue pulled jackfruit sandwich and mac and cheese made with cashew cheddar cheese sauce, it's no wonder. Open since 1998, Watercourse prides itself on pleasing even the most meat-loving, I’ll-never-eat-vegan customers. Burger aficionados might be surprised at just how tasty grilled seitan and tofu bacon can be.

7. CONNECTICUT // 21 OAK

Location: Manchester, Connecticut

Back in 2011, chef Shawn Dickensheets competed on Food Network’s "Chopped!" and was eliminated for botching Brussels sprouts. So it's only fitting that he achieve culinary catharsis with a vegetarian restaurant that’s earning high praise in the Constitution State. Bold flavors and global cuisine takes center stage at 21 Oak, which features a rotating lineup of entrees like coconut curried tofu and baked eggplant Florentine. There are also plant-based recreations of classic dishes like French onion soup, chili, and pot roast.

8. DELAWARE // DROP SQUAD KITCHEN

Location: Newark, Delaware

From vegetarian jerk "ChickUn" to meatless, sauce-slathered spare ribs, Drop Squad Kitchen serves up an alternative take on some choice southern favorites. Chef Abundance Child, who grew up cooking soul food, has also made room for salads and smoothies, including a chocolate, banana, coconut, and almond concoction simply called "God." Quite a name, but if customer reviews are any indication, it lives up to the hype.

9. FLORIDA // DANDELION COMMUNITEA CAFÉ

Location: Orlando, Florida

Located in a century-old house with a spacious patio where workers maintain an edible garden, it's no wonder this establishment feels like home to so many customers. Dandelion serves up hearty bowls of chili made with tempeh, kidney beans, corn, and peppers, along with some indulgent favorites like vegetarian nachos and buffalo wings. As the name implies, there are numerous tea selections available, from herbal to kombucha.

10. GEORGIA // SOUL VEGETARIAN NO. 2

Location: Atlanta, Georgia

The words "vegetarian" and "barbecue" rarely occupy the same sentence. But the chefs at Soul Vegetarian No. 2 are proving that southern staples don’t need to be high in cholesterol to be comforting. In place of meat, this Atlanta restaurant makes tofu, cauliflower steaks, and "kalebone"—their signature protein made from wheat gluten and spices—the stars of the show. The sides are just as delectable as the meatless mains, with collard greens, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese rounding out the soul food menu. The dessert section includes dairy-free ice cream for vegans.

11. HAWAII // 'AI LOVE NALO

Location: Waimanalo, Hawaii


Yelp, Cristy S.

From the moment guests pull into the parking lot, 'Ai Love Nalo challenges their perceptions. The restaurant is located in a converted gas station, but the chefs inside the kitchen aren’t serving typical roadside fare. The menu, which features a falafel burger, a BBQ Portobello sandwich, and a salad sprinkled with "coco-bacon," is 100 percent plant-based. In addition to their international offerings, 'Ai Love Nalo sells local Hawaiian specialties. Instead of filling luau leaves with pork to make Laulau, they fill theirs with slow-cooked vegetables. Their vegan "poke" swaps out tuna for tofu.

12. IDAHO // SHANGRI-LA TEA ROOM AND VEGETARIAN CAFE

Location: Boise, Idaho

The Shangri-La Tea Room takes inspiration from many different cuisines to create a vegetarian menu that’s wholly satisfying. Diners can order a Caprese pizza, a curry wrap, mushroom miso soup, or even a mock "toona" sandwich made with vegan ingredients. As the name suggests, the establishment also offers a wide selection of herbal and bubble teas to sip with your meal.

13. ILLINOIS // THE CHICAGO DINER

Location: Chicago, Illinois

In a lot of ways, the Chicago Diner is your typical Midwestern greasy spoon. They serve wings, nachos, moussaka, and even pierogi quesadillas—and it's all vegetarian. As their slogan reads, the restaurant has been "meat-free since '83." In dishes like the country-fried steak and the Reuben sandwich they use seitan in place of animal products. And like any decent all-American diner, they offer a full menu of (vegan) milkshakes.

14. INDIANA // THE OWLERY

Location: Bloomington, Indiana

The college town of Bloomington is naturally home to one of the hippest vegetarian spots in the state. The Owlery offers a wide selection of craft beers and vegetarian grub for brunch, lunch, and dinner. Highlights from the menu include the tofu fish taco and the Philly cheesesteak made with grilled seitan. The restaurant is also home to a vegan bakery that serves cookies, cupcakes, and muffins by the dozen.

15. IOWA // TRUMPET BLOSSOM CAFE

Location: Iowa City, Iowa


Yelp, Gia G.

The vegetarian specialties at this cafe don’t skimp on flavor. For dinner, guests have their choice of spicy peanut pasta, maple-mustard tempeh, and mushrooms braised in a tomato red-wine sauce. The Trumpet Blossom’s Rachel Wrap with egg salad-style tofu and herb aioli is a favorite at lunchtime. After ordering a meal made with organic, locally grown ingredients, don’t forget to treat yourself to one of their signature cocktails.

16. KANSAS // THE BREAKFAST CLUB

Location: Lawrence, Kansas

The Breakfast Club is located in the Ecumenical Campus Ministries building at the University of Kansas, but it doesn't just cater to students. The cafe, independently run by a mother-daughter team, is the place to go for fresh vegan fare in the Lawrence area. From 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, diners can order black bean hash, biscuits and gravy with seitan sausage, and even pizza.

17. KENTUCKY // ROOTS, HEART & SOY

Location: Louisville, Kentucky

heart and soy
Heart and Soy

Roots and Heart & Soy offer two different options for all-vegetarian Asian cuisine in the same building (the restaurants share an owner). Roots is an upscale, sit-down restaurant that serves up Asian-fusion tapas like a Caprese salad with tea-infused balsamic vinaigrette, summer rolls with veggie ham and tamarind sauce, and curry-braised beets. Heart & Soy offers quicker fare, including noodles, pho, and curry. The highlight of both the menus, though, is the tofu: Heart & Soy claims to house Kentucky’s only tofu manufacturing machine, and it makes all its tofu and soy milk in-house. You can try turmeric tofu, lemongrass tofu, five-spice tofu, and more.

18. LOUISIANA // SEED

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

Seed makes it easy to enjoy some of New Orleans’s best cuisine while staying meat free. Instead of fried chicken, they've got southern-fried tofu nuggets, which they serve with waffles at brunch. Instead of sausage or shrimp po' boys, they've got eggplant and fried tofu versions; instead of crab cakes, they have artichoke cakes. They've also got vegan gumbo, barbecue sandwiches that feature house-made seitan, and zucchini wraps with creole cashew cheese. Don’t forget to grab a beignet or one of their raw desserts before you go.

19. MAINE // CHASE'S DAILY

Location: Belfast, Maine

At Chase's Daily, you can be certain that the vegetables are fresh. The restaurant, produce stand, and bakery, founded in 2000, sources its veggies from the Chases’ family farm in the nearby town of Freedom. The kitchen only serves dinner on Fridays, but it’s great for lunch during the week and breakfast and brunch on the weekends. For lunch, try to get there just before 11 a.m., when the produce arrives fresh from the farm—you’ll have plenty of competition for a table. The menu changes daily, but you can expect killer pizzas, tempeh banh mi, curry fried rice, and on the weekends, breakfast burritos.

20. MARYLAND // THE LAND OF KUSH

Location: Baltimore, Maryland


Yelp, Sam T.

The tagline for the vegan soul food eatery Land of Kush is "you won’t believe it's veggie," and it lives up to the promise. It serves up the best vegan crab cakes in the city, according to the Baltimore City Paper, which in 2015 declared that none of the city’s other vegan options "come as close to replicating the original taste of crab as The Land of Kush does." They’ve got vegan versions of barbecue ribs, chicken drumsticks, and more. To get the full experience, go on the weekends, when they serve their famous crab cakes and vegan drummies.

21. MASSACHUSETTS // VEGGIE GALAXY

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

If all-day tempeh bacon is your thing, Veggie Galaxy is your place. Like most diners, this Cambridge staple has an extensive menu and serves breakfast all day, but it just happens to be nationally recognized as one of the best all-vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the U.S. If breakfast food isn’t your thing, Veggie Galaxy also serves up five different types of veggie burgers, as well as a rotating list of blue-plate specials. Plus, there’s an in-house vegan bakery as well, which churns out cakes, pies, and on the weekends, vegan doughnuts.

22. MICHIGAN // SEVA

Location: Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan

This Michigan staple has been serving the Ann Arbor area since 1973 and expanded to Detroit in 2011. Both Seva locations serve an all-vegetarian menu that mixes naturally meatless entrees—like goat-cheese ravioli and baked mac and cheese—with inventive soy-based dishes like poutine with vegetarian sausage, chicken-fried tofu, and a veggie take on the BLT that substitutes chargrilled tempeh for bacon. Most of the menu items include options for vegan substitutes like almond cheese and dairy-free salad dressings. Tip: Go with the General Tso’s cauliflower, which is lightly fried in tempura batter and topped with sweet-and-sour chili sauce.

23. MINNESOTA // HARD TIMES CAFE

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota

This collectively owned restaurant is beloved by many a Minnesotan, even the carnivorous ones. Locals rave about the dishes at Hard Times—especially the huge portions for low prices—but the vegan biscuits and gravy tops a number of lists. If you stop by, be prepared to pay cash only, and don’t expect any frills.

24. MISSISSIPPI // HIGH NOON CAFE

Location: Jackson, Mississippi

High Noon Cafe in Jackson does good ol’ Southern comfort food, vegan and vegetarian style. Fans know to hit High Noon for lunch on Fridays, which is when they serve their signature seaside cakes made from tofu, onion, seaweed and Panko. Word has it that they taste better than the crab cakes they’re imitating.

25. MISSOURI // CAFE GRATITUDE

Location: Kansas City, Missouri

If you’re in need of a pick-me-up, you’ll love the Gratitude Cafe for more reasons than just the food. Not only does the diverse menu get top marks, each item is also identified by a positive descriptor, like "Fabulous" (a raw lasagna with veggies, pesto, and cashew ricotta cheese) or "Magical" (a veggie burger on whole wheat with hummus). When the server delivers the dishes to the table, she matches the person to the dish by declaring, "You are Fabulous," or "You are Magical." Great food and an ego boost? Yes, please.

26. MONTANA // WHEATGRASS SALOON

Location: Livingston, Montana

Southwestern Montana isn’t exactly the vegan capital of the world, but that won’t matter when you walk into Wheatgrass Saloon. With cold press juices, quinoa bowls, kelp and squash Thai noodles and more, Wheatgrass is teaching local meat-eaters a thing or two about how delicious a vegan diet can be. Bonus: They’re also home to an eco-boutique filled with regionally sourced jewelry, crafts, lotions, candles, chocolates, and coffee.

27. NEBRASKA // MODERN LOVE

Location: Omaha, Nebraska

Modern Love describes itself as "swanky vegetarian comfort food," and Omahans seem to agree, adding "genius," "phenomenal," and "scrumptious" to the list of adjectives. Mac and ‘Shews is a popular choice, and people can’t seem to figure out what sorcery the chefs are using to get the non-dairy whipped cream to taste so good.

28. NEVADA // VEGENATION

Location: Las Vegas, Nevada

save the tuna roll at vegenation
Yelp, Ardie Y.

Vegan chicken and waffles is a thing, and it's an incredibly delicious thing at Vegas’s VegeNation. Their Save The Tuna sushi roll is another favorite menu staple, but for those with ever-changing palates, VegeNation offers limited-time-only "Pop Up" dishes, like bacon kimchi grilled cheese and sweet potato ravioli.

29. NEW HAMPSHIRE // GREEN ELEPHANT

Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The Thai-inspired menu at Green Elephant is a haven for vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike. The Thai Ginger Noodles and the Pad Thai are always good, but the real show-stopper is dessert: The fried bananas with coconut ice cream is a can’t-miss.

30. NEW JERSEY // FROM SEED TO SPROUT

Location: Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey

Vacationing on the Jersey Shore and need to detox from all that pizza, fried seafood, and funnel cake? Visit Seed to Sprout, the vegan/organic eatery run by locals Cara Pescatore and Alex Mazzucca. The two first opened Seed to Sprout in 2012, in Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey. Since then, the business has expanded to include a second location in Fair Haven; a brand-new vegan bakery in Wanamassa; and in-house services like cooking classes, custom-order cakes, and meal takeout and delivery programs.

31. NEW MEXICO // ANNAPURNA’S WORLD VEGETARIAN CAFÉ

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico

For a taste of the Far East, head to Annapurna’s World Vegetarian Café. The vegan/organic restaurant chain serves authentic Indian dishes, but customers looking for all-American veggie grub can also order baked goods, brunch staples like pancakes or tofu scramble, and veggie burgers [PDF]. Annapurna’s first location opened in Albuquerque in 2002; since then, the chain has grown to include two other local outposts, and a fourth in Santa Fe.

32. NEW YORK // DIRT CANDY

Location: New York, New York

chocolate onion tart at dirt candy
Evan Sung

Dirt Candy began as a humble East Village hole-in-the-wall, but the restaurant grew such deep roots in New York City’s culinary scene that in 2015, owner and chef Amanda Cohen "replanted" her eatery inside a larger neighborhood storefront. From deep-fried broccoli florets to a chocolate-onion tart, Dirt Candy reinvents vegetable-based dishes while celebrating them.

33. NORTH CAROLINA // PLANT

Location: Asheville, North Carolina

Looking for fine vegetarian dining in the Barbecue Belt? Try Plant, an Asheville-based outpost that serves high-end vegan and vegetarian fare. Entrees like Indian-themed dishes, portobello "steaks," and fried plantains are served along with craft cocktails, biodynamic wines, and regionally brewed beers.

34. NORTH DAKOTA // GREEN HOUSE CAFÉ

Location: Fargo, North Dakota

In 2016, North Dakota got its first-ever vegan restaurant: The Green House Café, in downtown Fargo. Customers can enjoy veggie-friendly staples like brown rice bowls and fruit smoothies, or satisfy their cravings with “BBQ” sandwiches, vegan macaroni and cheese, creamy desserts, and other decadent dishes.

35. OHIO // THE ANGRY BAKER

Location: Columbus, Ohio

Vegetarians and carnivores alike can freely indulge at The Angry Baker. The Columbus-based restaurant’s two locations are known for creative, veggie-friendly offerings like "barbecue” sandwiches and tacos made from meaty jackfruit, but select sandwiches do contain meat.

36. OKLAHOMA // THE RED CUP CAFÉ

Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Caffeine addicts and vegetarians alike should feel at home while visiting Oklahoma’s Red Cup Café. Standout offerings include coffee drinks like the "Sexi Mexi" (espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate, cayenne, and cinnamon), vegetable "jambalaya," and biscuits paired with plant-based sausage gravy.

37. OREGON // BLOSSOMING LOTUS

Location: Portland, Oregon

blossoming lotus
Yelp, Joshua C.

Everyone perusing the Blossoming Lotus menu will spot their mission statement of providing organic, healthy options the restaurant describes as "live." That doesn’t mean you’ll need to get combative with your food, though: "live" simply indicates raw and unprocessed, as in the case of their "live pecan pie." The lunch options are served all day beginning at 7:30 a.m., just in case a craving for their lentil-walnut burger starts early.

38. PENNSYLVANIA // VEDGE

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philly vegans have gone wild for Vedge and chef Rich Landau’s twists on classic staples. The lasagna, which uses tofu to mimic ricotta cheese, is a popular menu item. So is a breakfast scramble with broccoli rabe and a trademark dish of roasted carrots served with sauerkraut hummus, which is said to be as delicious as the Reuben it's replicating. If anyone can make Philly something other than a cheesesteak town, it's Landau.

39. RHODE ISLAND // THE GRANGE

Location: Providence, Rhode Island

Variety blossoms at the Grange, where visitors can get their fix in every category from brunch (try the Black Eye Pea Burger or "Chicken-Fried" Seitan Waffles with spicy maple syrup) to cocktails to desserts (like the Orange Vanilla Cheesecake). For a bar food fix, try the General Tso tacos made with seitan.

40. SOUTH CAROLINA // LAMB'S BREAD

Location: Columbia, South Carolina

Craving a Philly-style cheesesteak without the steak? Lamb's Bead offers a vegan replica with mock soy pepper steak; burger lovers can grab a house special loaded with condiments on organic nut and oat bread. Other takes on comfort classics like spare ribs and mac 'n cheese are also served up. Regulars might suggest the spicy Kung Po "chicken." Take them up on it.

41. SOUTH DAKOTA // SANAA'S

Location: Sioux Falls, South Dakota

You might not think their reputation for being the “beef state” leaves a lot of vegetarian options, but South Dakota can satisfy those appetites. Sanaa’s started out as half vegetarian but has since morphed into a mostly-veg menu highlighted by the vegetarian kibbeh, with bulgur patties and potato. The bad news: You’ll only find lunch here, but the vegan-curious will enjoy the Friday night buffet that lets you sample a little of everything.

42. TENNESSEE // THE WILD COW

Location: Nashville, Tennessee

sandwich at the wild cow
Yelp, Denise P.

Local farms source most of this Nashville staple’s menu, and diners rave about their perfectly seasoned and prepared kale options. The Wild Cow is also home to black bean and sweet potato tacos and the Carrot Dawg, a carrot-based hot dog alternative.

43. TEXAS // COSMIC CAFÉ

Location: Dallas, Texas

Spicy, stir-fried Indian cuisine is fused with a little spiritual guidance at the Cosmic, which hosts meditation and yoga classes in addition to a world-class menu. Try the Bombay Sage, with lentils rolled in flour tortillas, or the Dharma Bell, a bell pepper full of potatoes, rice, and possibly a little enlightenment.

44. UTAH // SAGE'S CAFE

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

If you find yourself passing through Salt Lake City, Sage’s Café is the place to go. Just 10 minutes from the airport and 25 from Park City, this beloved eatery offers organic and locally farmed foods. The café is a regular feature on best restaurant lists for both the city and the state, and the menu is completely vegetarian, offering meat-free and vegan twists on classics like tacos, stir-fry, and stroganoff.

45. VERMONT // PINGALA CAFÉ & EATERY

Location: Burlington, Vermont

avocado toast at pingala cafe
Pingala Cafe

You know a vegan restaurant is good when even diehard carnivores can’t get enough. Yoga-mat-bearing hipsters and meat-and-potato types alike line up for Pingala Café & Eatery’s delectable smoothies, sandwiches, and baked goods, many of which are also gluten-free. For scenic charm, you can’t beat the ambience, either; the homey café is run out of an airy old mill overlooking the Wnooski River.

46. VIRGINIA // SUNFLOWER VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT

Location: Vienna and Falls Church, Virginia

If you’re looking for a vegetarian restaurant endorsement, you can’t do much better than Buddhist monks. A large party of the Dalai Lama’s disciples dined at Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant in 2011, and the place has been beaming ever since. The spot's Japanese, Chinese, and continental fare is also regularly named some of the best in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

47. WASHINGTON // CAFÉ FLORA

Location: Seattle, Washington

In a city with a lot of competition, Café Flora shines. The city’s favorite meat-free restaurant serves up beautiful, rich meals like tortillas and cheesy mashed potatoes, black bean stew, and smoky braised greens. The harvest lasagna, made with roasted butternut squash and tomato fennel sauce, is another winner. Or show up for brunch and tuck in to blood orange ginger waffles, inventive cocktails, and biscuits and gravy.

48. WEST VIRGINIA // THE WILD BEAN

Location: Lewisville, West Virginia

There’s something to be said for the simple pleasure of a really good, conscience-friendly cup of coffee and a muffin. Coffee offerings at Lewisville’s Wild Bean include organic, fair trade, rainforest- and bird-friendly selections for every java lover’s palate, and their fresh baked goods, savory wraps, and burgers are worth a trip all on their own.

49. WISCONSIN // CAFÉ MANNA

Location: Brookfield, Wisconsin

Not content with serving fresh, sustainable, locally grown food, the owners of Café Manna run one of the greenest restaurants around. Take-out containers are compostable, fixtures are recycled. The café itself is made of eco-friendly materials like bamboo and recycled paper. The café even offers vegetarian and vegan cooking classes on the weekends.

50. WYOMING // SWEET MELISSA

Location: Laramie, Wyoming

Vegetarian options are few and far between in Wyoming, but you wouldn’t know it from the flavorful, delicious food at Sweet Melissa's, where the cooks and wait staff are always eager to please. They’re doing a fine job, too; one Yelp reviewer called it "a nice little shop serving heath conscious and veggie/vegan friendly food in a town full of meat and cowboys."

By Stacy Conradt, Michele Debczak, Shaunacy Ferro, Kate Horowitz, Jake Rossen, Abbey Stone, and Jeff Wells.

That Sugar Rush Is All In Your Head

iStock.com/egal
iStock.com/egal

We've all heard of the "sugar rush." It's a vision that prompts parents and even teachers to snatch candy away from kids, fearing they'll soon be bouncing off the walls, wired and hyperactive. It’s a myth American culture has clung to for decades—and these days, it’s not just a kid thing. Adults are wary of sugar, too. Some of this fear is warranted—diabetes, the obesity epidemic—but the truth is, sugar doesn't cause hyperactivity. Its impact on the body isn’t an up-and-down thing. The science is clear: There is no "sugar rush.”

To find out how and why the myth started, we need to go back to well before the first World War—then pay a visit to the 1970s.

Our Complicated Relationship With Sugar

According to cultural historian Samira Kawash, America has had a long, complex, love-hate relationship with sugar. In Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, Kawash traces the turn from candy-as-treat to candy-as-food in the early 20th century. At that time, the dietary recommendations from scientists included a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, with sugar as essential for energy.

Not everyone was on board: The temperance movement, for example, pushed the idea that sugar caused an intoxication similar to alcohol, making candy-eaters sluggish, loopy, and overstimulated. In 1907, the chief of the Philadelphia Bureau of Health estimated that the "appetite" for candy and alcohol were "one and the same," Kawash writes. On the flip side, other scientists suggested that sugar from candy could stave off cravings for alcohol—a suggestion that candymakers then used in their advertisements.

While the debate about sugar as an energy source raged in America, militaries around the world were also exploring sugar as energy for soldiers. In 1898, the Prussian war office became the first to commission a study on the sweet stuff—with promising results: "Sugar in small doses is well-adapted to help men to perform extraordinary muscular labor," early researchers wrote. German military experiments introduced candy and chocolate cakes as fortification for the troops, and the U.S. military added sugary foods to soldiers' diets soon after. When American soldiers returned from World War I, they craved sweets, which "propelled an enormous boom" of candy sales that has lasted to this day, Kawash wrote on her blog, The Candy Professor. American advertisers framed candy as a quick, easy source of energy for busy adults during their workday.

As artificial sweeteners moved into kitchens in the 1950s, candymakers struggled to make their products appeal to women who were watching their waistlines. One industry group, Sugar Information Inc., produced a tiny "Memo to Dieters" pamphlet in 1954 designed to fit inside chocolate boxes. "Sugar before meals raises your blood sugar level and reduces your appetite," it claimed. But by the 1970s, the sugar-positivity heyday had started to wane.

The Origins of the Sugar Rush Myth

The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity gained traction in the early 1970s, when more attention was being paid to how diet might affect behavior. One of the major figures studying the possible connection between diet and behavior was an allergist named Benjamin Feingold, who hypothesized that certain food additives, including dyes and artificial flavorings, might lead to hyperactivity. He formalized this into a popular—yet controversial—elimination diet program. Though certain sugary foods were banned from the program for containing dyes and flavorings, sugar itself was never formally prohibited. Still, thanks in part of the Feingold diet, sugar started to become the poster child for diet and hyperactivity.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that serious doubts about sugar's connection to hyperactivity began to be raised by scientists. As FDA historian Suzanne White Junod wrote in 2003 [PDF], the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health concluded that "alleged links between sugar consumption and hyperactivity/attention deficit disorders in children had not been scientifically supported." Despite "mothers' mantra of no sweets before dinner," she noted, "more serious allegations of adverse pediatric consequences … have not withstood scientific scrutiny."

A 1994 paper found that aspartame—an artificial sweetener that had also been accused of inducing hyperactivity in children—had no effect on 15 children with ADHD, even though they had consumed 10 times more than the typical amount.

A year later, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a meta-analysis of the effect of sugar on children's behavior and cognition. It examined data from 23 studies that were conducted under controlled conditions: In every study, some children were given sugar, and others were given an artificial sweetener placebo like aspartame. Neither researchers nor children knew who received the real thing. The studies recruited neurotypical children, kids with ADHD, and a group who were "sensitive" to sugar, according to their parents.

The analysis found that "sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children." (The authors did note that “a small effect of sugar or effects on subsets of children cannot be ruled out.”)

"So far, all the well-controlled scientific studies examining the relationship between sugar and behavior in children have not been able to demonstrate it," Mark Wolraich, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center who has worked with children with ADHD for more than 30 years and the co-author of that 1995 paper, tells Mental Floss.

Yet the myth that consuming sugar causes hyperactivity hasn’t really gone away. One major reason is the placebo effect, which can have powerful results. The idea that you or your children might feel a "sugar rush" from too much candy isn't unlike the boost you hope to feel from an energy drink or a meal replacement shake or bar (which can contain several teaspoons of sugar). The same is true for parents who claim that their kids seem hyperactive at a party. Peer pressure and excitement seem to be to blame—not sugar.

"The strong belief of parents [in sugar's effects on children's behavior] may be due to expectancy and common association," Wolraich wrote in the JAMA paper.

It works the other way, too: Some parents say they've noticed a difference in their kids' behavior once they take out most sugars from their diets. This strategy, like the Feingold diet, continues to attract interest and followers because believing it works has an impact on whether it actually works or not.

Correlation, Causation, and Caffeine

Which isn't to say there are absolutely no links between sugar consumption and poor health outcomes. A 2006 paper found that drinking a lot of sugary soft drinks was associated with mental health issues, including hyperactivity, but the study's design relied on self-reported questionnaires that were filled out by more than 5000 10th-graders in Oslo, Norway. The authors also noted that caffeine is common in colas, which might have a confounding effect.

In another study, conducted by University of Vermont professor of economics Sara Solnick and Harvard health policy professor David Hemenway, the researchers investigated the so-called "Twinkie defense," in which sugar is said to contribute to an "altered state of mind." (The phrase Twinkie defense comes from the 1979 trial of Dan White for killing San Francisco city district supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. His lawyers argued that White had "diminished capacity and was unable to premeditate his crime," as evidenced in part by his sudden adoption of a junk-food diet in the months before the murders. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.)

In their survey of nearly 1900 Boston public high schoolers, Solnick and Hemenway found "a significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence." Adolescents who drank more than five cans of soft drinks per week—nearly 30 percent of the group—were significantly more likely to have carried a weapon.

But Solnick tells Mental Floss the study isn't evidence of a "sugar rush."

"Even if sugar did cause aggression—which we did not prove—we have no way of knowing whether the effect is immediate (and perhaps short-lived) as the phrase 'sugar rush' implies, or whether it’s a longer-term process," she says. Sugar could, for example, increase irritability, which might sometimes flare up into aggression—but not as an immediate reaction to consuming sugar.

Harvard researchers are looking into the long-term effects of sugar using data from Project Viva, a large observational study of pregnant women, mothers, and their children. A 2018 paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine studied more than 1200 mother-child pairs from Project Viva, assessing mothers' self-reported diets during pregnancy as well as their children's health during early childhood.

"Sugar consumption, especially from [sugar-sweetened beverages], during pregnancy and childhood, and maternal diet soda consumption may adversely impact child cognition,” the authors concluded, though they noted that other factors could explain the association.

“This study design can look at relationships, but it cannot determine cause and effect,” says Wolraich, who was not involved in the study. "It is equally possible that parents of children with lower cognition are likely to cause a greater consumption of sugar or diet drinks, or that there is a third factor that influences cognition and consumption.”

The Science of the Sugar Crash

Though the evidence against the sugar rush is strong, a "sugar crash" is real—but typically it only affects people with diabetes.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, low blood sugar—or hypoglycemia—is a serious medical condition. When a lot of sugar enters the bloodstream, it can spike the blood sugar level, causing fluctuation, instability, and eventually a crash—which is called reactive hypoglycemia. If a diabetic's blood sugar levels are too low, a number of symptoms—including shakiness, fatigue, weakness, and more—can follow. Severe hypoglycemia can lead to seizures and even coma.

For most of us, though, it's rare. Endocrinologist Dr. Natasa Janicic-Kahric told The Washington Post that "about 5 percent of Americans experience sugar crash."

You're more likely to experience it if you do a tough workout on an empty stomach. "If one exercises vigorously and doesn't have sufficient intake to supplement their use of calories, they can get lightheaded," Wolraich says. "But in most cases, the body is good at regulating a person's needs."

So what you're attributing to sugar—the highs and the lows—is probably all in your head.

What Are These Foreign Foods Made Of?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER