This summer we were contacted on our Facebook page by one of our readers, Jen. She was looking for information about sugar intake for babies, toddlers and kids. Like many of us she’d heard conflicting information about the forms that sugar can take and had also heard that sugar was as addictive as cocaine or heroin. Today the Union of Concerned Scientists releases a new report on kids and sugar consumption and we spoke with the report’s lead author, Genna Reed, about Jen’s questions.
When we talk about sugar being a problem, what are we talking about?
We’re talking about added sugar, not about naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruits and vegetables or milk. This is the kind of sugar that is added into foods to sweeten them during the manufacturing process. We use the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s definition which includes sugars, syrups and fruit juice concentrates.
Do honey or fruit juices count as added sugars?
Yes, they do. Added sugars, whether from corn syrup, honey, sugar beets, or fruit juice concentrate, can be a source of harmful calories when consumed in excess. If you’re looking at an ingredient label and see brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, turbinado sugar, trehalose or sucrose, those are all sources of added sugar.
Why is added sugar problematic, why not all sugars?
“Sweet” is the first taste that babies are biologically programmed to enjoy. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that babies take well to nutrient-dense, sweet-tasting breast milk. When children perceive something sweet, the tongue’s taste receptors are stimulated and their stomach releases hormones that arouse the brain’s pleasure center.
Naturally occurring sugars in things like breast milk, fruits and vegetables are more complex and often packaged with fiber, so it takes the body longer to metabolize them. Refined sugars are already unpacked which means that the body doesn’t have to work to process them, meaning that they’re more readily available for the body to use (what we call bioavailable), or to store as fat if we don’t use the energy.
Food preference begins very early in life so when an infant or toddler’s diet is sugar-rich, it can lead to a lifelong preference for sugar-rich foods. Extensive research shows that diets high in sugary foods tend to have a greater risk of tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Thus, diets with reduced added sugar consumption are more in line with healthy eating patterns.
Our reader wanted to know if kids are actually getting too much added sugar in their diets, are they?
Yes they are! The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that no more than10% of a child’s daily caloric intake come from added sugars. What we’re seeing is that added sugars make up more than 50% of the daily calorie intake for the vast majority of children aged two to eight. That’s far too much. The American Heart Association recommends that children age 2 to 18 only consume a maximum of 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day, which is less than one 12 oz. can of Coca-Cola.
Food marketing to children is so sneaky. I remember as a child really wanting a specific cereal because there was a commercial on that promised a Darth Vader hologram in every box. Our son usually watches Netflix, but one day I had live TV on a cartoon and suddenly the kind of food marketing I knew (and loved) as a child made me really uncomfortable.
Yes, ”the prize inside,” is one form of food marketing target at kids, but it goes beyond that. Most children as young as age two to three begin to recognize familiar characters on foods and you’ll see that often kids food is cross promoted with a popular movie or TV show, like your Darth Vader hologram. By preschool, kids can recall brand names after seeing them on television. You’ll also notice that everything about a food product marketed towards kids is designed to excite. They have bright colors, distinctive packaging and cartoon characters. Sometimes the food itself is in the shape of a cartoon character.
The food industry self-regulates limits on its marketing of unhealthy foods to children through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative launched by the Council of Better Business Bureaus a decade ago. Member companies, including some of the biggest snack food companies like PepsiCo, Nestle USA, and Kraft Foods Group, have pledged to advertise only foods that meet the initiative’s nutrition criteria to children. The food industry still spends almost $2 billion on advertising to children every year, including on TV and the internet. Even preschoolers are not safe from junk food ads, seeing as four-fifths of US children under five use the internet on a weekly basis, and three-fifths of children three years and under watch videos online.
Can parents avoid added sugar and food marketing at their kids by buying foods marketed as “healthy,” “all natural” or “organic.”
Foods marketed as “all natural,” “healthy” or “organic” can still have high amounts of added sugar. The best way to know for sure that a product is low in added sugars is by checking out the nutrition fact label for sugar content and then scan the ingredients list for names of added sugars. Front-of-package claims, like “healthy,” can be misleading since there are no limits to the amount of sugars that may be in products bearing that claim. The FDA has certain disqualifying levels for saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium, above which makers of a product may not make any health claims. Added sugar is notably absent from this category, even though consumption of added sugar is linked to increased disease risk.
Nutrition labels can be tough!! I worked on a childhood obesity prevention campaign for years and I still can’t make heads or tails of nutrition labels.
They’re getting better, I promise! In May the FDA released its final rule of revisions for the Nutrition Facts label that will require inclusion of the grams and percent daily value of added sugar on all food packages. However, there is room for improvement when it comes to children. The current label still leaves the door open for food companies to produce and market high-sugar foods to children that have comparable serving sizes and sugar amounts to similar products meant for adults, making it harder to parents to know whether a food has acceptable levels of sugar for a child.
Our reader had heard the claim that “sugar is as addictive as cocaine or heroin,” could you address that?
When we digest sugar, hormones are released that set off the pleasure center of the brain, activating the same neurological pathways as are activated when we consume addictive drugs. Substance abuse is not my area of expertise so I can’t adequately address that aspect of the question. What I can say is that early and frequent exposure to sugar can lead to a lifelong preference for it, and an increased risk of sugar-induced diseases. The food industry has capitalized on this inherent attraction to sweet foods and beverages and the likelihood that early exposure will hook us on added sugars.
What can parents do to keep their child’s intake of added sugar within recommended guidelines?
Caring for a child brings with it a variety of stressors, and diet is one over which parents have some semblance of control. I’m not recommending that parents never let their child have a cookie or a piece of birthday cake.
Parents can help limit added sugar consumption by starting their kids off healthy and offering them a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain snacks and water instead of sweetened beverages. They can empower themselves by looking at ingredients lists for the types of added sugars I mentioned earlier and doing their best to limit how often they give sugar-rich products to their child.
The US government also need to help empower parents by giving them the tools they need to nourish their children and set them up for a healthy life. We need more age-appropriate nutrition standards and clearer labeling on food for young children. Such policy changes are critical given the gaps in nutritional information, the high amounts of added sugars in their diets, and the fact that taste preferences are shaped during early childhood. And of course, food companies should reduce the amounts of sugar added into children’s foods and strictly follow commitments not to advertise junk food to young children.