Sugar has become nutrition public enemy number one, and not without some justification. Sugar has been associated with obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, liver disease, and other significant health problems. Now, the American Heart Association (AHA) has issued new recommendations for sugar intake by children.
The AHA reviewed existing studies examining the effects of added sugars on the cardiovascular health of children in the United States. Those studies looked at the effect of sugar on blood pressure, lipids, insulin resistance, diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and obesity in children.
Before we go on to look at the findings of the AHA, let’s take a moment to look at the difference between natural and added sugars.
Natural sugars are those found naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables, and milk. They are intrinsic in foods that also contain plenty of healthy nutrients.
Added sugars include all sugars that are added to foods and drinks during processing or preparation, as well as sugars eaten separately or added to foods at the table. They can include natural sugars (like white sugar and honey) as well as manufactured sugars (like high fructose corn syrup). The key is that they are added to a product. As soon as sugar is added to a product it becomes added sugar, even if it was a natural sugar to begin with.
The recommendations made by the AHA relate to added, not natural sugars.
Findings of the AHA
So what did the AHA find in the studies? Here is a summary:
- Added sugars make up almost 16% of the calories consumed by children.
- Children aged 2 to 19 years consume an average of 80g or 20 teaspoons (4g = 1 teaspoon) of added sugar every day. Half comes from food, half comes from drinks.
- The major contributors to added sugar intake in children are soda, fruit-flavored and sports drinks, cakes, and cookies.
- Children who consume more added sugars have higher daily calorie intakes than those who consume fewer added sugars.
- Higher added sugar intake has been strongly linked to excess weight gain and an increased risk of obesity.
- Excessive fructose intake has been shown to result in increased blood pressure in children and young adults.
- Children with low consumption of added sugars have better triglyceride and HDL levels than children with high consumption of added sugars.
- Cardiovascular risk increases as added sugar consumption increases.
- Children who consume large amounts of added sugars may be consuming fewer nutrients that are important for health.
As a result of these findings, the AHA went on to make the following three important recommendations:
- Children and adolescents should consume no more than 25g (100 calories or ~6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day.
- Children under the age of 2 should not consume any added sugars.
- Children and adolescents should limit their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages to one or fewer 8-oz beverages per week.
What does this mean in practice?
Six teaspoons of sugar sounds like a lot, but it is surprisingly easy for a child to consume far more than that in a day. Let’s take a look at the added sugar content of some popular children’s foods.
¾ cup = 1g = 0.25 tsp added sugar
Quaker Instant Oatmeal Maple and Brown Sugar
1 serving = 12g = 3 tsp added sugar
Kellogg’s Pop Tarts
1 pastry = 16g = 4 tsp added sugar
12 fl oz = 21g = 5.25 tsp added sugar
Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
1 bar = 7g = almost 2 tsp added sugar
Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey Granola Bars
1 serving = 11g = almost 3 tsp added sugar
Honey Graham Crackers
1 cracker = 4g = 1 tsp added sugar
Chips Ahoy Original Cookies
1 serving (3 cookies) = 11g = almost 3 tsp added sugar
How Can You Tell The Sugar Content of Foods?
It is not always easy to tell how much added sugar a food contains. While the nutrition facts label does state the total sugar content, it does not tell you how much of that sugar is natural and how much is added. That information will be on nutrition labels in the next couple of years, but not yet. So in the meantime, how do you work out how much added sugar a product contains? You can find out here.
What Can You Do To Limit Added Sugars?
It is not always easy to persuade children to eat less added sugars, but it is really important to try. Eating too much added sugar can lead to a whole host of health problems. By steering your child in the right direction now, you are setting them up on the path to good health in adulthood. Just remember – if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Here is a list of tips to help you limit added sugars in your child’s diet.
- Give your children water instead of juice or sweetened beverages
- Avoid sugary cereals. Read the nutrition label to see how much sugar the product contains.
- Replace sweetened foods and beverages with those that have no added sugars or are low in added sugars. Try offering foods sweetened with fruit instead.
- Watch out for fruit flavored yogurts. They often have a very high added sugar content.
- Make treats ‘sometimes’ foods, not everyday foods.
- Serve small portions of sweets, treats, and desserts. Try using smaller bowls and plates.
- Get children to share a candy bar or a cupcake.
- Make fruit your regular dessert. You could bake apples with cinnamon, chop fruit for a fruit salad, or serve frozen mango, pineapple, or berries to keep it interesting.