“Kids can’t help it! We love sweets,” laments Jonas, a 3rd grader at UT Elementary. That’s confirmed by a recent report showing US children consume about 19 teaspoons of added sugars a day—more than 3 times the recommended amount.
And parents love to give kids sweets: they’re used as incentives for finishing homework or trying a new food and for comforting a child in a difficult situation. Sweets are central to celebrations like holidays and birthday parties. Cultural influences also play a role. Whenasked if she was concerned about her child’s sugarconsumption, one Austin mother said, “Part of beinga kid is enjoying soda, cookies and cupcakes—I’m notgoing to deprive her.”
Cause for Concern
Lydia Steinman, a registered dietitian and distinguished senior lecturer at UT Austin, explains the concern. “Foods high in added sugars are associated with obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. The American Heart Association (AHA) recently reported that added sugar consumption may increase your child’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”
“Foods high in added sugars and low in nutritional value can crowd out foods that are critical to building health in a growing child,” she continues. “If your child fills up on sweetened juice and cookies after school, she may not be very interested in eating the broccoli, brown rice and chicken on her plate for dinner.”
The Weight of Sweetness
Many parents don’t realize how much added sugar their child is consuming. “Sugar comes from many different sources. It’s the added sugars that are the problem,” says Steinman. “Natural sugars found in food, such as lactose in milk or fructose in whole fruit, are not the culprit. Unprocessed foods are nutritionally dense and contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. On the other hand, added sugars in processed foods offer mostly empty calories without nutritional benefit.”
What is added sugar? It’s the sweeteners added during the preparation or processing of a food. Starting in 2018, new food labeling will show the amount of sugar that has been added. Until then, follow these easy steps to understand how much added sugar your child will get from a food:
- First, read the ingredient list. Sometimes added sugar goes by other names, such as dextrose or corn syrup.
- Next, locate the total grams of sugar.
- Then, calculate the number of teaspoons. Divide the total grams of sugar by 5, and you’ll see about how many teaspoons of sugar are in each serving.
For children, sugar-sweetened beverages are a frequent source of added sugars. This includes soda, sports drinks and fruit drinks (as opposed to 100% fruit juice). Other common sources are cakes and cookies.
You may be shocked to learn how much sugar is in your child’s favorite foods and drinks. After conducting research at a local grocery store, 8-year-old Jonas exclaimed, “I was surprised that some foods have so many teaspoons of sugar in them! Others, not so much.”
What You Can Do
The American Academy of Pediatrics endorses the AHA recommendation that children older than 2 years old consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day. To keep added sugar in check, Steinman advises:
- Limit the sodas, sports drinks and fruit drinks your child consumes. The AHA recommends a child drink no more than one 8-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage per week.
- Choose whole fruit over fruit juice or fruit drinks. Many fruit drinks contain high amounts of added sugars, are high in calories and don’t offer the benefit of fiber from whole fruit.
- Limit processed foods, such as packaged snacks.
- Offer your child food from all five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Visit choosemyplate.gov for tips on how to optimize nutrition.
- Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. Some studies link excessive levels of high-fructose corn syrup with accumulation of fat in the liver.
- Pay attention to how much added sugar is in a food. Check total grams of sugar and divide by 5 to calculate teaspoons. Fifteen grams of sugar may not sound like a lot, but it’s equivalent to 3 teaspoons of sugar. That’s half of the daily recommendation.
- Involve children in checking labels for added sugars. This will teach them how to make good food choices.
Here are some other names for added sugar found in the ingredient list:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Brown sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
- Turbinado sugar
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer in Austin.