The Twinkie Defense Defended: Soda Pop And Violence In Teens

In 1979, Dan White1 was tried for the assassinations of San Francisco city district Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. His lawyers argued that he had diminished capacity and was unable to premeditate his crime. Part of the evidence for his depressed and altered state of mind was that he had recently changed from a health-conscious diet to junk food and Coca-Cola. Although Twinkies, a popular packaged snack cake filled with cream, were mentioned only in passing during the trial, the legal argument became known as the ‘Twinkie Defense’.

Pop kills!

The summary is from the peer-reviewed paper “The ‘Twinkie Defense’: the relationship between carbonated non-diet soft drinks and violence perpetration among Boston high school students” by Solnick and Hemenway in the journal Injury Prevention.

Solnick and Hemenway thought White’s defensive attorneys were on to something because, for example, science tells us that there are “several purported pathways linking diet and anti-social behaviour.” Bad guys eat different stuff than good guys. The craven crave sugar more than the cultured.

“One possible explanation for an association between high sugar intake and aggressive behaviour is that that consumption of sugary beverages is a response to abnormally low blood glucose levels, a physiological state that has been linked with irritable and violent behaviour.”

What about micro-nutrients you ask? “Another possibility is that soft drinks replace healthier whole foods in the diet, and that a deficiency of micro-nutrients can lead to violent behaviour.” There’s that sorted.

These facts given, the researchers wondered whether soda pop accounts for violence of the sort often found in teens. To discover whether this were so, the researchers made use of a questionnaire given to Boston high school students.

Besides asking the kids to volunteer from memory how much sugary soda pop they drank in a week, the survey also wondered whether brothers would admit to having punched their sisters, and vice versa. Or whether they’d admit to being “violent” to other kids. Or whether the kids would admit to be “violent” with whom those they were in a “dating relationship.” Or whether they would fess up to carrying a knife or gun “anywhere in the past year.”

Now, if you asked this last question to my high-school mates you would have received a near 100% positive response. To not carry a gun or knife would have been considered unusual. Then again, your author attended a school which celebrated Opening Day of deer season as an official holiday.

The Boston kids were mostly Blacks and Hispanics, with about 8% Asians and 9% Whites. Turns out that, according to the self reports, very few Asian kids said they had five or more pops a week—the cut off selected by the authors as the most indicative. The reader will recall that Asian kids suffer from the stereotype of doing better at school than other groups.

Anyway, our researchers turned up a “dose-response relationship” between sucking soda and violence. The more pop drank, the larger the percentage of admitted violent acts. Very surprisingly, those who drank five or more pops a week also were more likely to “use” tobacco or alcohol.

But raw percentages do not p-values make, and the authors needed p-values else they would not have a paper. So they fed the data into statistical models and found lots of p-values less than the magic number (of 0.05). In particular the p-value for pop consumption was small, thus the conjecture that pop causes rage, and acts of the same, has been proven.

They explored several models, some including booze and cigarettes, others without. Most of the models had a measure called the (pseudo) R-square in the very disreputable neighborhood of 0.07. This crudely means that the model “explains” only 7% of the variance of the data. The remaining 93% remains unexplained. In other words, these models are to statistics what soda pop are to a healthy diet.

Our principal results are that, for Boston high school students, there is a strong, significant association between carbonated non-diet soft drink consumption and the perpetration of violence against siblings, against peers and against dates…We also find a strong association between soft drink consumption and carrying weapons.

The authors worked hard at finding a “causal pathway” to explain these inexplicable results, to say how the caffeine in some pops and the sugar in all of them re-wires the brains of teens and causes them to reach for the knife and to be “violent.”

“It is possible that an underlying organic factor, such as low blood sugar, may lead to both high soft drink consumption and aggressive behaviour.” This suggests that teens with over-active pancreases should be closely monitored lest they biff other students during study hall at unacceptable rates.

Unexplored by our researchers was the hypothesis that kids who eat too much junk food, smoke, and drink were predisposed to act irresponsibly.


1White got off, too.

Thanks to reader Jim Fedako for suggesting this topic.


  1. Speed

    What about comic books? Video games? Too much TV? Drugs? Violent sports? Economic factors? Household situation?

  2. DAV

    Odd. I would have thought the lower consumption of soft drinks would have had the lower p-value. Maybe it’s determined by what is valued.

    I’m glad you labeled the content of the barrel. Otherwise it looks like photographic evidence of cops abusing alcohol


    I think acne will be prevalent in violent teens.

  3. Will

    Not that I’m defending the results (I haven’t read the study), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some correlation between junk food and teen violence.

    My own anecdotal experience from school suggests that poor kids eat more junk food. I’m not sure why. The same anecdotal experience suggests that poor kids are more likely to be involved in violent incidents outside of school hours.

    I’m not saying the junk food causes this behavior, and I’m admittedly drawing on personal experiences.

    This reminds me of an earlier post where someone, maybe Briggs, used the example of drownings correlating well with ice cream stands. 🙂

  4. GoneWithTheWind

    Obviously the reason these “researchers” choose soft drinks to study is because of their bias to soft drinks. And lo and behold the results supported their bias!! Who could have seen that coming???

  5. Katie

    A rather sad analysis by Theodore Dalrymple that considers the malnutrition of Britain’s criminals:

    For Dalrymple the problem is not only the appalling diet of those who make poor life choices, but the lack a positive family structure that includes meals at regular intervals and the presence of an adult who is willing to tell the tell the prospective juvenile delinquent “No.”

  6. Proven: Bad choices = bad results. Who could have known? We thank thee, oh social scientists, for honoring us with thy wisdom.

  7. William Sears

    People who are irresponsible in one area of life are irresponsible in others. I’m shocked. For an epidemiologist causation can only run in one direction and compounding factors do not exist. To think that statistics can resolve such questions is wishful thinking. Also remember the lesson from Sesame Street: food is food, fellow. Junk food is in the eye of the beholder, for if it wasn’t it would not follow dietary fashion so closely or reinforce class prejudice so strongly. The surest way to wreak your health through diet is to ignore your cravings and to force yourself to follow a diet craze of healthy eating. The body craves what it is deficient in. It is only necessary to have a variety of foods readily available. The only exceptions to this are allergies (i.e. peanut) and food intolerances such as lactose and gluten. Otherwise the concept of healthy eating is a type of sympathetic magic.

  8. Reed Coray

    I lived in California (San Jose) at the time of the Milk/Moscone murders. I remember thinking “Liberals have been hoisted on their own petard.” Well not in the consensus meaning of the phrase (injured by the device that you intended to use to injure others); but rather in the sense that liberals passed a law to lessen the legal responsibility of certain anti-government actions–especially the actions of left leaning people, and an ultra conservative (Dan White) used their law to avoid the more serious charge of first degree murder. I called White’s trial “poetic justice”. I still think do.

  9. David Hemenway is one of the kings of statistical malpractice in the the realm of anti-violence policy (his bread and butter is anti-gun research… because that’s what he gets grant money for).

    Do you have a few data points regarding violence? Hemenway will make it point to any cause you want… soda, guns, whatever. Want to check his data and methods? Good luck getting them.

    If you want a few more blog posts on easy-to-criticise research papers, just look into papers authored by David Hemenway or Garen Wintemute.

  10. I checked with William to see if it was OK to drop this post in here five years late for any who might happen by, and he said “Go right ahead!”,

    Sooooo…. here it be, one of the one-page shorts from the Satirical Smoke section of my recent “TobakkoNacht — The Antismoking Endgame.”


    Love, and a Coke 45

    It was a dark and stormy night. The glaring lights of the 7-11 Qwickee
    Mart on the corner sputtered, spangled, and sparked, casting an eerie
    glow over the surrounding dreary neighborhood.

    A hooded teen pushed in through the doors. The place was empty aside
    from two store clerks who were jabbering at each other in Lithuanian or
    Zimbabwum or French or Vietno-Arab-Mongolianese, and the teen headed
    back to the Soda Safes.

    He pulled out a cold can of Coke 45 and ran up to the clerk at the cash
    register. The clerk started to ring it up while calling out the price when the kid suddenly started shaking the deadly can, priming it to blow before the befuddled bejabberer could reach under the counter for hissawed-off shotgun.

    “HANDS IN THE AIR! NOW!!!” the kid shouted! The merchants of death
    reached for the sky and backed away as the cold-blooded psycho-killer, a
    veteran of the Fizz Wars of the ’90s, reached into the open register and
    grabbed for the cash.

    At that point the braver of the two clerks reached for a Camel, intending to light it and cast a toxic cloud toward the armed teen but the kid was fast, too fast, and the top of the loaded can went off with a BANG!

    Frothing, Fizzling, Foozelling Fantails of Coke 45 suddenly spewed sizzlingly across the intervening space and sent both clerks reeling toward an early grave as the marauding murdering miscreant mustered back out into the night.

    Another sordid tale from the Naked City.


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