8 Surprising Facts About Added Sugar Every Parent Should Know
Most children consume too much. Here’s why—and how to tame their cravings.-
Samantha Lefave is an experienced writer and editor who has contributed to various publications, including Men's Health, Women's Health, Runner's World, and Bicycling. She regularly covers health, fitness, and travel, is a big fan of summit beers, and can usually be found somewhere with her highly active dog.
Yogurt. Juice. Breakfast bars. All are foods you've likely given your child. All are considered at least somewhat healthy. And all come with—surprise!—heaping helpings of added sugar.
Added sugar has been linked to obesity and a host of health problems in children. For that reason, kids over age two should consume no more than 25 grams a day, or roughly six teaspoons, according to the American Heart Association. Unfortunately, the average child consumes more than twice that—81 grams. For context, a can of regular Coke has 39 grams.
That's enough to make any parent say yikes. To help you and your little one stick to the recommended guidelines, here's what you need to know about the sweet stuff.
Sugar Fact #1: We're All Born with a Sweet Tooth
Even infants crave the sweet stuff. "Breast milk has sugar in it [lactose], and there's a preference for mother's milk when we're born," says David Suskind, M.D., director of clinical gastroenterology at Seattle Children's Hospital, professor of pediatrics at University of Washington School of Medicine and a member of the Nutrition4Kids Medical Advisory Board.
That preference continues as children grow, thanks to evolution: "Sweetness is associated with calories and energy, so if a child enjoys sweetness, they're going to get more energy and be more likely to grow and thrive," Dr. Suskind says.
The problem, of course, is that these evolutionary benefits were great when we didn't have excessive amounts of food and sugary substances at our fingertips. But as the world became more industrialized, Dr. Suskind says that advantage became too much of a good thing.
Sugar Fact #2: Too Much Sugar Can Lead to Health Complications
Sugar in and of itself isn't good or bad, Dr. Suskind says. The problem is excess sugar. Regularly consuming too much can lead to a whole host of health issues, including an increased risk of being overweight or obese.
Not-so-fun fact: The prevalence of obesity in children surged from 5.2 percent in the 1970s to a whopping 17.2 percent in 2014, causing the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition to declare it a national epidemic.
Research has found a heightened likelihood of being overweight or obese also increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems like heart disease.
Many of these health issues arise because our bodies simply aren't capable of processing such large amounts of sugar. The excess then gets stored as fat throughout the body and can cause inflammatory reactions, Dr. Suskind says. When those inflammatory reactions become chronic, it causes the body to fight against itself, potentially leading to health issues.
Sugar Fact #3: Kids Can Eat as Much Natural Sugar as They Want
For the most part, the health issues connected with sugar are due to eating too much added sugar, rather than the naturally occurring sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and other non-packaged foods.
"Sugar that can be found naturally in dairy products or fruit are important for a child to have in their diet," says Jodi Greebel, M.S., R.D.N., a pediatric registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in Westchester, New York.
That's because they're delivered with key nutrients and protein and fiber, which can help kids feel fuller longer. Plus, a toddler isn't likely to overindulge in, say, oranges.
Unsurprisingly, soft drinks are the leading source of added sugar in everyday diet, but they're not the only offenders. Other kid-friendly foods that tend to be packed with sugar: juice, yogurt, and, obviously, sweets like cookies and candy.
Sugar Fact #4: Added Sugar Hides in Plain Sight
When your kid eats a cookie, you know they're eating sugar. It's an indulgence you're allowing into their daily diet, and that's totally okay because you're limiting it. But what Greebel says often throws parents is the high amounts of sugar found in products you wouldn't typically think of as sweet.
"It's those hidden sugars that are often what's really adding up to these kids having so much more sugar than they need in their diet," Greebel says.
Common culprits include crackers, bread (all kinds—not just white), tomato sauce, ketchup, and fruit pouches, Greebel says. Even plant-based milks are sneaky: 60 percent of households with kids are buying plant-based products (like coconut, oat, or almond milk), but Greebel says many companies are adding sugar into these items.
"So while you think you're doing something good for your child, you might be giving them the source of sugar they wouldn't be getting otherwise," she adds.
That's why it's important to peek at the nutrition label before throwing an item in your grocery cart. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires all added sugar be listed on a food label, making it easier for parents to make health-conscious decisions.
Sugar Fact #5: Sugar Has Many Pen Names
Life would be a lot simpler if sugar was just called sugar. Unfortunately, it hides behind a number of names.
Arguably the most well-known are white (table) sugar and high fructose corn syrup, but there's also coconut sugar, honey, corn syrup, maple syrup, caramel syrup, and brown rice syrup, Greebel says. Not to mention anything ending in "ose"—like dextrose, sucralose, and glucose—are chemical codes for sugar.
"High fructose corn syrup has gotten such a bad reputation, so many companies have started using words like 'syrup' that certainly sound healthier than, say, sucrose," Greebel says. "It's very tricky."
Sugar Fact #6: You Can Curb Your Kid's Sweet Tooth
"The eating habits you learn as a child often continue into adulthood, so if a child learns to love healthy foods, that can set them up for good eating behaviors for the rest of their life," Greebel says.
Fruits are an obvious go-to, given that they're loaded with vitamins and minerals and the naturally occurring sugars make them taste great. Most children find it easier to get their recommended daily servings of fruit (1 to 2 cups per day) than vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 9 in 10 children don't hit the 1 to 3 cups per day recommendation.
To help lessen the learning curve, expose your kids to a wide variety of vegetables on a regular basis. Greebel suggests starting with sweeter options, like carrots, sweet potatoes, and bell peppers before moving to more savory options like leafy greens or broccoli.
Pick anything from this list of 15 whole food snacks.
It's also important to limit access to sugar-saturated products by keeping sugary cereals, juice, and soda out of the house as much as possible, Dr. Suskind says. That way, when they do have these items, it's more like a treat than an everyday occurrence, and dependency is less likely.
Sugar Fact #7: It's Not Necessary to Do Math
Tracking your kid's daily added sugar consumption is no easy task. Yes, the new nutrition labels make it easier—just remember to check the number of servings in any package or container—but even so, that's a daunting daily to-do, though our simple food log can help.
That's why Greebel suggests focusing on shopping smarter. Look at how much added sugar is in the products on your list—and adjust accordingly before you put these foods in your cart.
Take yogurt, for instance. If you flip over the container and see your child gets 16 grams of sugar in a serving, it's going to be really tough to stick to 25 grams per day. So you may want to swap yogurts—maybe even choosing a plain version you can sweeten yourself with fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey.
Otherwise, aim for fresh foods as much as you can. And at the end of the day, remember to cut yourself some slack.
"I think parents should be aware, I don't think they should count every single gram of added sugar," Dr. Suskind says. "We're juggling so many things. It's okay if your child gets a few sugary things during the week."
This story has been medically reviewed by Stan Cohen, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children's Center for Digestive Health Care in Atlanta and the director of Nutrition4Kids Medical Advisory Board.
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