Cookies, candy and sweet treats are what childhood is made of, but we all know feeding our kids too much sugar can lead to a host of problems like childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes, risk factors for heart disease, fatty liver disease, asthma and of course, cavities. Sugar and its many different types can be complicated however, so you may have had questions like what are added sugars? And are added sugars bad?
Added sugars aren’t only found in kid-friendly foods, but can hide under at least 61 different names, be marketed as “natural,” or found in foods that aren’t even sweet.
To make things even more confusing, there are sugars that can be both natural and added sugars—more on that later!
Here, learn what added sugars are, the differences between natural sugars and added sugars, how to read labels and spot these sneaky sugars, and get easy, simple tips for cutting back on them in your kid’s diet.
WHAT ARE ADDED SUGARS?
When we talk about sugar, it’s important to make the distinction between natural sugars, or naturally-occurring sugars like fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy and added sugars. Although these foods have sugar, they also contain other nutrients that kids need in their diets like fiber and calcium, for example.
Added sugars on the other hand, are any type of ingredient that sweetens foods and beverages—whether you can taste it or not. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, added sugars include syrups and other caloric sweeteners.
The USDA says added sugars are:
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Brown sugar
- Confectioner’s powdered sugar
- Cane juice
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Crystal dextrose
- Evaporated corn sweetener
- Fruit nectar
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Liquid fructose
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Nectars (e.g., peach or pear nectar)
- Pancake syrup
- Raw sugar
- Sugar cane juice
- White granulated sugar
There are also natural sugars like honey, agave and maple syrup that once they’re isolated and added to a food as a sweetener, are actually considered added sugars, Angela Lemond, RDN, told me in this article.
The same can be said for fructose, which is considered natural when it’s consumed from real fruit, but once it’s used as a sweetener in foods it’s added sugar.
Related: What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
In 2018, the FDA considered a requirement for companies to list ingredients such as honey and maple syrup as added sugars on the Nutrition Facts labels by 2020.
In June 2019 however, they issued final guidance stating that single ingredient packages of honey, maple syrup, agave syrup and other pure sugars and syrups do not have to be listed as added sugars.
ARE ADDED SUGARS BAD?
The American Heart Association says kids under 2 shouldn’t have any added sugar in their diets. Kids between 2 and 18 should have no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar a day.
It probably comes as no surprise however, that most kids in the U.S eat too much sugar. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16 percent of the total calories for children and teens come from added sugars.
But what may surprise you—as it did for me—is that babies and toddlers consume too many added sugars as well.
According to a 2018 study, 99% of toddlers between 19- and 23- months-old consumed an average of 7 teaspoons on any given day—more than the amount of sugar in a Snickers’ bar! What’s more, 60% of children were found to consume sugar before they turned 1.
Although there is no chemical difference between natural sugars and added sugars, and the body metabolizes them the same way, foods with added sugars don’t have the same nutrients that foods with natural sugars have, like fruit or yogurt, for example.
However, since natural and added sugars are perceived by the same taste receptors on the tongue, our bodies can’t tell the difference between the two.
Foods with added sugars also contribute empty calories to your kid’s diet that can lead to weight gain and can displace nutrient-dense calories from real, whole foods.
Sugar may not make your kid hyper—I beg to differ—but eating sugar can make them feel sluggish and cranky.
Since studies show food preferences are established during infancy, feeding kids too many foods with added sugars could affect their eating habits now and throughout their lives.
How To Identify Added Sugars
Although added sugars can be sneaky, there are simple ways to spot them and cut back on them in your kid’s diet.
Stick to foods without sugar and eat real food
One of the best ways to avoid most added sugars in your kid’s diet is to prioritize whole foods over processed, packaged foods at every meal and snack.
Processed kids’ snacks, frozen meals and soups—even those that are organic, gluten-free or made with real cheese—may seem healthy but many have added sugars.
In fact, according to a 2016 report by the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, 50% of baby snacks and 83% of toddler snacks contain added sugars.
Focus on vegetables and fruits, protein, healthy fats, and whole grains. Depending on their ages, kids need just as many, or more, servings of vegetables than fruit.
When it comes spotting added sugars in food, seemingly healthy foods can be sneaky sources in your kid’s diet.
They also may not even taste sweet, making them harder to identify. These can include:
- Baby food
- Baked goods: cookies, cakes, pastries, doughnuts
- Barbecue sauce
- Candy and chocolate
- Canned fruit, fruit cups, dried fruit, applesauce
- Frozen foods
- Ice cream and dairy desserts
- Instant oatmeal
- Jams, jellies, fruit preserves, syrups and sweet toppings
- Marina sauce and other sauces
- Processed snacks
- Protein, cereal and granola bars
- Salad dressings
The good news is that it’s becoming much easier to spot added sugars. You’ve probably already seen the new Nutrition Facts labels which have a line for added sugars both in grams and as percent Daily Value (DV).
Food manufacturers that have $10 million or more in annual sales have until January 1, 2020 to completely switch out their labels, while those with less than $10 million have until January 1, 2021.
Avoid juice and sugary drinks
In September 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry issued first-ever consensus healthy kids’ drink guidelines.
According to the recommendations, depending on their ages, kids should avoid or limit juice, and avoid all types of sugary drinks including chocolate milk.
Related: Is Chocolate Milk Good for Kids?
Since soda, energy and sports drinks, and fruit drinks are leading sources of added sugar in kids’ diets, cutting back is the best way to avoid them.
Make healthy sweet treats at home
Swapping fast food and store-bought desserts with your own healthy, homemade versions is a great way to cut down on added sugars.
Using natural sweeteners like apple sauce or dried fruit without added sugars, and fresh fruits and vegetables like bananas, apples, pears, mango, and sweet potatoes are all great ways to cut down on added sugars.
Roasting fruits like apples or pears for example, also brings out their natural sweetness and is a healthy and delicious dessert swap for other sugary treats.