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Kids and sugar: How much is too much and how to avoid it

By Melody Tan 5 min read
Sunday, May 16, 2021

Research shows our children's sugar intake is much higher than recommended. Here's what we can do about it.

Sugar has been under the spotlight in recent years, with growing evidence demonstrating that we live in a world addicted to the sweet stuff.  

Two in five Australian children aged 2–17 years (44.8 per cent) consume either sugar-sweetened drinks or diet drinks at least once per week. With teenage boys it's even worse—they consume a worrying average of 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. In New Zealand, 17 per cent of children aged 2–14 years consume at least three soft drinks or energy drinks a week.

It's hardly surprising, considering their parents consume an average of 60 grams of free or added sugars per day (or 14 teaspoons). Like their kids, over half of these sugars consumed by adults are from beverages such as soft drinks, energy and electrolyte sports drinks, fruit juices and fruit drinks, and cordials. 

Hyperactivity and diabetes: What happens when a child has too much sugar

Kids and sugar - hyperactivity

Consuming too many sugary drinks and foods can cause a child to develop a range of health problems, including tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even anxiety and hyperactivity. This is usually the result of big blood sugar spikes over a period of time.

While type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, a child's diet, activity levels and rate of weight gain can influence whether they develop type 2 diabetes. A high-sugar diet and lack of healthy eating and exercise can lead to insulin resistance, which can end up with your child developing type 2 diabetes.

In fact, there is a strong correlation between processed or "free sugar" consumption and obesity. Free sugar, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is “monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates”. 

It's important to remember free sugars don't include natural sugars found in fresh fruits and veggies, or sugars that are intrinsic to the food.

A major problem that causes many children to consume too many sugary foods lies in the confusion surrounding food labels. A lack of transparent nutrition and ingredient labelling is causing parents to make poor choices when it comes to healthy food and beverages. Keep reading for a nutritionist's checklist on what to watch out for when doing your weekly shop. 

How many grams of sugar a day should kids have?

Kids and sugar How many grams a day

The WHO recommends adults and children to reduce their sugar consumption to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake. Children aged two and under should not be given sweet treats or be exposed to free sugars. Those aged between 2 and 18 should have less than 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons) of sugar a day. The recommended maximum daily intake for adults is 9 teaspoons.

“While consumers have a responsibility for their health, they also need access to real facts in order to make informed lifestyle choices, especially when walking down the shopping aisle,” said Drew Bilbe, co-founder and CEO of Nexba Beverages.

Ingredients must be listed on the nutrition information panel in descending order, with the first ingredient on the list containing the most amount of weight in the food.

“So if sugar is listed as one of the top three ingredients, you may want to put that item back or consume it only sparingly,” said Drew.

Artificial sweeteners for kids: Are they safe?

In the video below, nutritionist Amanda Muhl discusses which products to choose and which to avoid, and answers some frequently asked questions. 

How to avoid foods with free sugars

The easiest way to avoid too much sugar is to focus on natural and nutritious foods such as whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies. Packaged and processed foods are often filled with excess and refined sugar.

If you're worried about the effects of sugar on your children, you're certainly not alone. While it's perfectly fine to enjoy some sugary treats like ice-cream or muffins on special occasions, it's important to avoid consuming excess sugar in your daily meals. 

This can be difficult when sugar goes by many names. According to the University of California, San Francisco, USA, there are at least 61 names for sugar, with some of the most obvious being cane sugar, coconut sugar, corn syrup, glucose and fructose. Some of the lesser known names are dextrin, dextrose, maltose and invert sugar.

Rebecca Gawthorne is the founder of award-winning blog Nourish Naturally, an accredited practicing dietitian and an accredited nutritionist. She is working in partnership with Nexba to promote their naturally sugar-free drink alternatives.

She has produced a helpful checklist below to use when you're doing your weekly shop, to avoid unknowingly buying, or over-consuming, any unnecessary sugars or other nasties.

1. Be savvy on the guidelines

Ingredients are listed in order of weight so if sugar is in the top three ingredients, you may want to reconsider. The label will also show the amount of sugar per serve and per 100g. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36g of added sugar for men and 25g for women.

“It’s ideal to look at the whole picture rather than just one ingredient in the product, such as sugar. As you do this, compare different brands of the same food type to determine the healthiest option,” says Drew.

2. Don’t take labels at face value

When reviewing the sugar content also check for any curious ingredients. A quick Google search will help. Also know that if you buy any foods or beverages that look processed to some degree, such as a standard muffin or fruit drink, assume that the sugar content has free sugars in it, and account for these in your daily dietary intake if you do decide to buy.

3. Beware of sneaky sugars

A common sweetness enhancer is sucrose, which contains both disaccharides and monosaccharides. While it is produced naturally in plants—typically extracted from cane sugar—it is commonly refined for use in food items such as table sugar.

The other sugar to avoid is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a sweetener made from corn starch or maize that has been processed with some of its glucose converted into fructose.

“While fructose or fruit sugar is found intrinsically in fruits and vegetables, as well as honey, it’s a good idea to be mindful of added fructose to processed or packaged foods, as this will load up your free sugar calories,” adds Drew.

4. If in doubt don’t buy

If you can’t put a "real" name to an ingredient or if you intuitively feel that the ingredient might not be healthful, the best advice is not to buy it. This is a good rule to follow if you’re serious about your health and keeping the lid on sugar.

5. Sugar free is not enough

As Amanda shared in the video above, sugar-free options often replace sugar with artificial alternatives that have their own side effects and can at times be worse. Look out for products which are labelled as "Naturally Sugar Free" and/or contain obviously natural ingredients. You will often find natural alternatives to your favourite sugar-fuelled products are more readily available than you think.

Common soft drinks can contain your entire daily sugar allowance, so swap these out for alternatives which contain no sugar and nothing artificial.

6. Experiment with natural alternatives

If you enjoy a hint of sweetness, some of the healthiest options to choose from include organic or raw honey straight from the source or cacao, which is a pure and raw form of chocolate. Cacao nibs can be especially tasty when added to hot beverages or to your morning oats. Cacao also has a number of beneficial phytonutrients, such as flavonoids, which contain antioxidants and anti-viral properties.

7. Know the jargon

Common health claims can be meaningless unless you know the facts behind them. For example, low fat means this food must have 3g of fat or less per 100g but look at the label because it may be high in sugar instead.

Recipe: No sugar chocolate crackles

These are gluten-free and vegan chocolate crackles, made using cocoa powder, desiccated coconut, honey and dairy-free butter.