Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find an adult who doesn’t know that sugar isn’t healthy. With recent research findings and the media coverage of these discoveries, sugar has begun to receive an increasing amount of attention. Does a greater awareness of the dangers of sugar translate into changes in our behavior? Sometimes. Maybe you have begun to inspect nutrition labels when grocery shopping; maybe you’ve tried to cut down on the empty calories that come from sugar in many sodas. More recently, I’ve begun to wonder whether this heightened awareness has begun to trickle down and affect how we feed our children.
The food environment for today’s children is saturated with sugar. One trip to a child’s birthday party can confirm this; there’s soda with the pizza, a dessert (cake, icepops, or now even cakepops), and a “goodie bag” full of sugary treats to take home. Everywhere you look there is potential for a sugar high and an even uglier, subsequent crash. When I first began thinking about the sugar content in children’s foods and drinks, it wasn’t these obvious forms that struck me, however; what surprised me most was the amount of sugar hidden in foods and drinks that seem normal and even healthy. Most parents want to feed their children well-balanced, nutritional meals and snacks that will support healthy growth and development, however, unfortunately, many food and beverage products on the market today that appear okay for kids contain high amounts of sugar. To really explore this topic, let’s take a closer look at a seemingly “healthy” daily menu for a kid in our sugar-saturated society.
8 fl. oz. glass of Tropicana Original orange juice 22 g
¾ cup of Life Cinnamon cereal 8 g
½ cup of Tuscan Dairy Farm 1% lowfat milk 6 g
Total = 36 g
2 slices of Vermont Bread soft whole wheat bread 2 g
2 tbsp of Jif Creamy peanut butter 3 g
1 tbsp of Smuckers Red Raspberry jam 12g
Juicy Juice Apple Juice Fun Size box 14 g
1 Kellogg’s Rice Krispies treat 8 g
Total = 39 g
Nutri-Grain Apple Cinnamon cereal bar 12 g
Total = 12 g
4 Perdue Fun Shape Chicken Nuggets 1 g
1 tbsp of Heinz Ketchup 4 g
A handful of Bolthouse Farms baby-cut carrots 5 g
1 glass of water 0 g
Total = 10 g
½ cup of Edy’s Slow Churned Cookies and Cream ice cream 13 g
Total = 13g
Total Daily Sugar Intake = 110 g, or 26.2 teaspoons
What is recommended?
To put this total daily sugar intake value into perspective, let’s consider how well this number fits with current recommendations. The World Health Organization (WHO) has drafted new recommendations suggesting that only 5% of adults’ total daily caloric intake should come from sugar, which is equivalent to about 25 grams or 6 teaspoons. Presumably, this number would be lower for children and adolescents though guidelines for these age groups have not yet been released by the WHO. In 2009, however, the American Heart Association released recommendations for maximum consumption of added sugars – those that are not naturally found in foods and beverages - according to age categories. Children between the ages of 4-8 were recommended, for example, to consume a maximum of 3 teaspoons of added sugar per day and pre-teens and teenagers were advised to consume, at most, 5-8 teaspoons daily.
What is the reality?
Using data from 2001-2004, the National Cancer Institute found that children between the ages of 4 and 8 consumed 21 teaspoons of added sugar each day – 7 times the recommended amount. This number was even greater among older children and adolescents. In fact, boys between the ages of 14 and 18 were found to consume about 34 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
Why Sugar in Children’s Diets Matters
Sugar-saturated diets may have a number of harmful health effects for children. Excess calories in the form of sugar may lead a child or teen to be overweight or obese as well put them at risk of developing diabetes. What is also important to remember when discussing children’s diets is that children and adolescents are still developing. During this time, their bodies (including their brains) are changing and growing – sometimes at rapid speeds. Why is this important? More and more research, including some from my laboratory, has begun to show that during critical periods of development, exposure to sugar may have lasting effects on behaviors that suggest underlying changes in the brain.
In addition to physical growth, children and adolescents are developing patterns of behaviors, or habits, that can form the foundation for their actions for many years to come. They are also learning associations between certain activities or stimuli and food. For example, while growing up, children often hear some version of “if you behave well, you can have dessert.” While this may seem like a harmless, age-old (not to mention effective) trick in the Mommy arsenal, this could lead to problems in the long run if children begin to automatically think of food as a reward. Considering the many potential negative effects on both physical and psychological development, it is important to reconsider the large role that sugar currently plays in the diets of children and adolescents.