Curbing Children's Sweet Tooth

The days of singing “Just a teaspoon of sugar helps the medicine go down” are over for kids.  That one teaspoon represents a little over 16% of what is now recommended by the American Heart Association - children and teens (ages 2 to 18) should consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day. 

The statement was announced in the journal of Circulation and is based on available scientific research on how sugar affects children’s health.

It’s been known that Americans who consume the most sugar – up to 25% of their daily calories – are twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who limit their sugar intake to no more than 7% of their total calories.  A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported on this problem warning of this risk and why it’s important to tame a sweet tooth.

The American Heart Association stated that regular consumption of foods and drinks high in added sugars can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, which in turn increase the risk of heart disease.  There had not been a definitive consensus on just how much added sugar is considered safe for children.  Currently, the typical American child consumes about triple the recommended amount of added sugar in their daily food choices.  The average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, also three times what’s recommended.  The American Heart Association also recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day or 24 grams of sugar equivalent to 100 calories for women and for men, no more than 9 teaspoons a day or 36 grams of sugar or about 150 calories from sugar. 

The key thing to know here is this recommendation is referring to added sugars and not sugars found naturally in fruits, dairy products, whole grains, or vegetables.  Added sugars are any sugars, including table sugar, along with high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, honey, molasses, and brown sugar used in the processing and preparation of foods or beverages.   

This recommendation by the American Heart Association is a worthy goal and in an ideal world would likely lead to reductions in chronic diseases.  However, putting the goal into practice for parents who purchase and prepare food is another story.  In order for a child to get in no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar means they pretty much have to be eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meat, poultry, fish, and to extremely limit any food with little nutritional value.  Again, this is a very needed and worthy goal but in reality, not very practical.

For example, many parents perceive yogurt as being a healthy food for their family – and it can be.  But be careful as yogurts vary widely in their added sugar content.  A basic vanilla yogurt can have as much as 26 grams of sugar in a serving - that’s 6 ½ teaspoons of added sugar which would already put your child over the recommended limit.  Or how about sugary breakfast cereals – it’s not uncommon for a single serving to contain 12 grams or more of added sugar or 3 teaspoons.  Our food industry has made it tough to realistically keep sugar intake reasonable. 

By July 2018, food manufacturers will be required to implement a new Nutrition Facts label on food packages with one of the changes being a new line for added sugars under the “Total Carbohydrate” heading.  This is well and good but one suggestion to make it easier for parents to interpret the labels is to not have the added sugars in grams – instead just list it as teaspoons.  Most Americans cannot visualize what a gram of sugar looks like but they can visualize what a teaspoon of sugar looks like.  In addition, most Americans do not know how to convert grams of sugar into teaspoons.  But if the label states how many teaspoons of added sugar a product contains, this will be more effective, eye-opening and relatable than visualizing grams.  By the way, one teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 4 grams of sugar. 

Another consideration is the fact that many Americans are not taking the time to read the Nutrition Facts label. When more of us begin to take advantage of label information, avoid foods with too much added sugar – sugary beverages, cakes, cookies, pie, pastries, etc. - and instead choose foods higher in fiber – fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains – then we can gain control of our added sugar intake. 

Teaching our kids about good nutrition from the very beginning, goes a long way in keeping them healthy throughout their lifetime.  It’s up to us as adults to be good role models of healthy eating habits and reducing our own sugar intake – our kids are watching and depend on us.