By Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
My kids love sweet foods. Ironically, they probably get their preference for cookies, cake, and candy from me, their dietitian mom. Sigh.
With any luck, my three children don’t number among the U.S. kids who consume too much added sugar.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children get an average of 16% of their calories from added sweeteners, the table sugar, corn syrup, honey, molasses, and other sugar-laden additives in processed and packaged foods.
That’s far more than what many health experts suggest.
Sweetened foods are problematic because they may contribute unnecessary calories that lead to weight gain, and because they often crowd out more nutritious choices, such as milk, fruit, and whole grains. Foods that are naturally sweet, such as fresh and dried fruit, have not been linked to health problems in kids.
Chances are, the CDC findings come as no surprise, especially if you’re a parent. You may fight to maintain balance in your child’s diet, and your own, just like I do.
The first step to slashing added sugars is to know where they lurk.
The CDC report found that children guzzle about 40% of added sugar as soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sugar-sweetened fruit concoctions, such as lemonade. However, while sugary soft drink intake is excessive, everyday foods, including baked goods, cereal, granola bars, candy, and cookies contribute the most added sugar – 60%–to kids’ diets.
Some sugar-laden sources are more obvious than others. Take the case of certain sweetened dried cranberries: One serving supplies as much added sugar as eight ounces of regular soda. Other dried fruits, including raisins, are naturally sweet and contain no added sweeteners.
How Much Added Sugar is OK to Eat
Kids may be off the mark for added sugar intake, but the fact that the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) provide room for added sugars (and solid fats) suggests that some additional sugar is OK as part of a balanced diet. The CDC says kids consume an average of 16% of their calories from added sugar alone. The DGA suggests limiting a combination of added sugar and solid fats to a total of 5% to 15% daily, so there’s clearly room for improvement.
Splitting the suggested calories from added solid fats and sugar evenly, older children could have as many as 130 calories as added sugars (about 8 teaspoons) on a 2,000-calorie eating plan, while younger children eating 1,400 calories daily would have an allowance of about 60 calories (about four teaspoons worth) from added sugar.
A 12-ounce can of regular soda provides about 12 teaspoons added sugar; four crème-filled sandwich cookies, about four teaspoons; and eight ounces of low-fat fruit yogurt has two teaspoons or more of added sugars.
Become a Sugar Sleuth
Even when you’re sure about how much added sugar is OK for your child, food labels let you down. Food manufacturers are not required to specify added sugars on the Nutrient Facts panel, so there is often no way to tell how sweet a food really is.
Food labels are confusing for other reasons, too.
Dairy foods, such as milk, may appear to be high in added sugar, when they are not: Eight ounces of plain 1% low-fat milk provides 12 grams of carbohydrate, which is listed in the Sugars category on the Nutrient Facts panel. That’s because lactose, the naturally-occurring carbohydrate in milk, is technically a simple sugar, and not because milk contains 12 grams of added sugar.
Labels on foods such as orange juice, apple slices, and some dried fruits may also mislead consumers into thinking the products have added sweeteners, when, in fact, the sugar is naturally occurring.
To be sure that a food contains added sugar, check the ingredient list for these terms:
• Agave nectar
• Anhydrous dextrose
• Brown sugar
• Cane crystals, cane juice, cane sugar
• Confectioner’s powdered sugar
• Corn sweetener
• Corn syrup, corn syrup solids
• Crystalline dextrose
• Crystalline fructose
• Evaporated cane juice
• Evaporated corn sweetener
• High-fructose corn syrup
• Invert sugar
• Liquid fructose
• Malt syrup
• Maple syrup
• Raw sugar
• Sugar, sugar can juice
• White granulated sugar
How to Slash Sugar
Trying to figure out the exact amount of sugar in packaged and processed foods is tricky. But hope is on the horizon.
The American Heart Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Defeat Diabetes Foundation are three of the 14 public health organizations that recently asked the Food and Drug Administration to require food manufacturers to list added sugar content on food packages.
For now, lower the sugar content in your child’s diet, and in your own, with these easy tips that you can start using today:
• Serve water and fat-free or 1% low-fat milk instead of soda and other sugary drinks.
• Avoid, or restrict, processed and packaged foods with added sugars.
• Choose low-sugar cereals for kids, or start cutting back by mixing low-sugar cereal with higher-sugar favorites.
• Offer naturally-sweetened foods that are packed with nutrients, including this Orange Mango Cooler. Mangos are a superfruit that are bursting with more than 20 vitamins and minerals including vitamins A and C, antioxidants, and fiber. Select fruit that is soft to the touch; when a mango has a slight give, it’s ready to eat. Don’t focus on color because it’s not the best indicator of mango ripeness.
Orange Mango Cooler
Makes 2 servings
1 cup fresh mango chunks (freeze for a frothier drink)
1 ½ cups plain fat-free yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup 100% orange juice
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend. Pour into a tall glass and drink immediately.
Source: MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better, by Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD.