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Children's Nutrition

Sugar and Kids: A Complete Guide for Parents

By Lara Field, MS, RD, LDN and pediatric nutrition expert with more than a decade of clinical experience. She’s the founder of FEED Nutrition Consulting and a mom of two boys, living the life of a busy parent just like many of her clients!

Sugar is a part of every kid’s diet, and it’s also a HOT topic; one that many parents express concern about daily. But, how much should you really worry?

 The first thing a parent should know is that a child’s sweet tooth starts forming in infancy. Born with an innate preference for sweets, babies are then provided a source of sweetness (breastmilk or formula) for a predominant part of their nutrition for their first 12 months of their lives.

As babies are exposed to new flavors and tastes, they’re introduced to more complex foods with a sweet profile, including fruit or single-grain cereals (oatmeal or rice cereal), which further enhances their sweet sensor. These may seem like benign sweet tastes, however, the more we expose our babies to a sweetened palate the more they will develop a preference for an enhanced sweet taste in their future. But, as they get older, they’re searching for more than milk or fruit.

 As a parent, you can take steps to reduce their sugar intake, both in infancy and as they grow older. Learn more about the connection between sugar and kids, and how you can find a healthy balance to help them grow and enjoy their foods at the same time.

Curb Their Sweet Tooth

In infancy, you can work to lay your child's foundation by ensuring that not every bite is a sweet taste, and instead, encouraging a savory profile as well. Rather than offering chicken and apple puree, or turkey, squash, and pear, try chicken and mashed yams or beef and carrot puree.

 Pro parent tip: Choosing orange veggies that are naturally sweeter will increase acceptance without fueling your baby’s sweet sensor by natural sugar from fruit.

As your child grow, you can work to curb his or her sweet tooth by recognizing the other words for sugar on food labels. Rather than looking at the grams of "sugars" on the Nutrition Facts panel (which includes natural sugar from milk (lactose), fruit (fructose), and added sugar, it’s best to scan ingredient labels for common forms of sugar. The list of names for sugars is long, so here are some of the names most commonly used:

  • cane sugar
  • evaporated cane juice
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • fruit juice concentrate

Additionally, some forms of sugar are from more natural sources, but our body processes them the same. These include: 

  • brown sugar
  • honey
  • maple syrup
  • coconut sugar
  • beet sugar
  • agave nectar
  • date sugar
  • molasses

You can learn all the additional terms for sugar at ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Understanding Sugar

In order to understand the difference between added sugar, and those that are naturally occurring, all packaged food will soon be required to list the amount of added sugars on the nutrition facts panel. This will help you distinguish natural sugars from added sugar when choosing packaged foods for your family.

In the meantime, how can you recognize added sugars from naturally-occuring sugars?

Natural sugars: Naturally occurring from the food (fruit sugar = fructose, milk sugar = lactose)

Added sugars: Added sugars imply that a sugar containing substance has been added to the food. However, these can be “natural” (honey, agave, maple syrup) or “refined” (high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar) 

Many food products contain added sugars including beverages with fruit juice from concentrate, cereals, yogurt, or breakfast bars. Additionally, everyday foods such as applesauce, dried fruit, pasta sauce, and other condiments can have added sugars as well. Though it may sound innocent, a little here and a little there can add up. Aim to choose products with less sugar or with no added sugar at all when possible.

Some tasty, low sugar foods include: 

  • Siggi’s low-fat yogurt
  • RXBARS
  • KIND Healthy Grain Bars
  • Biena Roasted Chickpeas
  • Bare Snacks Sea Salt Beet Chips

Banning Sugar Isn’t the Answer

Sugar is actually an important ingredient in food products when a chemical reaction is necessary to produce the food. For example, sugar is needed to feed the yeast in order for bread to rise. Thus, seeking out products with zero sugar, can be a bit extreme. Instead, look for products that are lower in sugar. Aim for less than 5 grams of added sugar per serving of food, which you can determine by simply checking the nutritional label. 

Daily Sugar Limits

According to the US Dietary Guidelines, we should not consume more than 10 percent of our daily caloric intake from added sugar. What does that mean? Let’s do a quick calculation: 

If a child’s estimated calorie requirement is 1,500 calories, they should consume no more than 150 calories from added sugar, or about 38 grams. To put this in perspective:

  • One 8 oz glass of chocolate milk has 13 grams of added sugar
  • One container of fruited yogurt can have nearly 12 grams of added sugar
  • One granola bar can have up to 15 grams of added sugar.

Notice how just three “healthyish” items, and your child is already at their daily maximum! Keep in mind that this doesn’t even count the ice cream or leftover halloween candy they asked for after dinner!

To mitigate this sugar intake, keep portions in check. Here are a few examples of how you can reduce sugar in your typical foods:

  • Consider purchasing plain yogurt and adding fresh fruit to sweeten
  • Rather than using jam on your PB&J, try sliced bananas or strawberries
  • Add dried fruits and use a sprinkle of cinnamon in your oatmeal instead of brown sugar

The Sugar-Carbohydrates Connection

Carbohydrates are one of the most important macronutrients for our body, fueling muscles, providing energy to our brain, and sparing protein and fat for other uses—all of these uses of carbohydrates are especially important for growing children. Sugar containing foods, natural or otherwise, are a source of carbohydrates.

That said, maintaining balance of carbohydrates is essential. Choosing complex carbohydrates, like whole grain bread and healthy starches like rice, and fiber-filled fruits and starchy vegetables is particularly important. This is why it’s important to choose products with simple ingredient labels, and those that contain less added sugar in their products, as opposed to cutting sugar out altogether.

When choosing sugar-rich foods, aim for smaller portions and consume these foods less frequently. You could start "dessert nights" twice weekly, rather than making sweets a nightly ritual. Ultimately, however, the goal is to diversify your kid’s palate, choosing sweet foods less often, so that he or she will continue to crave naturally sweet foods like fresh fruit, as opposed to candy bars or chocolate milk.

Sugar and Kids: It’s All About Balance 

It isn't realistic to completely cut out sugar, however, it is simple to reduce our everyday sugar intake. Approach sweet foods as “treats” and choose them on a more infrequent basis. Remember our kid’s ever evolving palate; kids (and adults!) can become dependant on sweet tastes, aiming to match that sensation of sweetness at every meal. By reducing our daily sugar dose, naturally sweet things such as fresh fruit become even more delicious. Make time for “dessert nights”—twice per week, but keep portions in check while enjoying!

 

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