I’m genuinely passionate and interested in all things nutrition-related, and sugar in particular, is the area that I get questioned about the most by parents in my clinic and at workshops.
Refined sugar regularly receives bad press, but despite what you may have read or heard, I believe there’s nothing wrong with a little sweetness in your child’s diet. With a few simple tweaks to some of your favourite recipes, your family can still enjoy these types of foods in moderation.
So, why has sugar become so demonised? The short answer is this – as our food supply has changed, we’ve unknowingly begun to consume too much sugar that is often hidden in processed foods once considered healthy. It’s our family’s staples that are now one of the major culprits when it comes to the increase of sugar in our kids’ diets.
Daily food items such as fruit juice, fruit spreads, muesli bars, soups, pasta sauce, meat and chicken marinades, yoghurts, bread and cereals all have significant quantities of hidden refined sugar. We often expect to find sugar in cakes, biscuits and treats, however it’s the sugar hidden and present in our family’s staples that pose the biggest problem.
LISTEN: Mia Freedman and Amelia Lester deconstruct what Donald Trump eats in a day. Post continues after audio.
Nutrition labels on packaged foods don’t always help us to navigate the processed sugar minefield, as different types of sugars are usually disguised or listed together as one component under the label ‘sugar’. Because of this, it’s important to look closely at the ingredients list to understand what type of sugar is in your child’s favourite foods, identify its many hidden names and look for non-processed healthier alternatives. Some hidden names include: corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin and glucose. I feature a comprehensive list on page 67 of my book.
Children aged two to five years typically consume around 13 teaspoons of added sugars per day. By the time a child is six to 11 years old, average sugar consumption skyrockets to around 19 teaspoons a day – the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for young children (based on WHO 2015 guidelines for optimal health) is between three to six teaspoons of added sugar per day.
This can become challenging when you realise a cup of store-bought orange juice can contain up to 24 grams of sugar (six teaspoons) and a single serve of breakfast cereal can contain around 12 grams of sugar (three teaspoons) – so our kids are eating two to three times the recommended daily intake – and that’s just at breakfast! An average squeezie yoghurt can contain four to five teaspoons of added sugar, and it’s not uncommon for children to have one for recess and one after school which contributes between 35-70 teaspoons of sugar a week (this is something that I see regularly in my clinic).
Many parents ask what the issue is with sugars and why they should be concerned? Extensive studies have shown that too much sugar can increase the risk of obesity and type two diabetes. In Australia there are currently around 400 new cases of type two diabetes identified each year in the 10-24 year age range and around one in four children aged between two to 17 are overweight or obese. In fact, by 2025, an estimated one third of children will be overweight or obese, based on research trajectory. It’s a sobering statistic.
Excess sugar in the diet has also been shown to inhibit the immune system, potentially contribute to learning and concentration difficulties, anxiety, depression and mood swings. It can also disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in children’s guts, which can lead to or exacerbate conditions like eczema, allergies and food sensitivities. There’s also the link to tooth decay and cavities.
It’s important to manage your child’s sweet tooth and offer age appropriate foods. In my book I feature a range of healthy and natural sweeteners that can be used in place of processed sugars – even with these types of sugars, moderation is still key. Some of these healthy sweetener options include maple syrup, raw honey (for children over one year), molasses, coconut sugar and date sugar. Full details on how to use these sweeteners can be found in my book, Wholesome Child.
Manage Sweet Temptations
Under the age of 18 months, there’s no need to introduce refined sugar to babies or young toddlers. A simple muffin sweetened with pumpkin and banana will be enough to satisfy their sweet tooth and will appear the same as another child’s cupcake. See our banana muffins for babies
With children 18 months and older, whenever leaving home be prepared with a homemade snack and learn to read nutrition labels when you’re out grocery shopping, to help make the best possible choices. When baking or preparing snacks, try to use dates, raw honey, coconut sugar or pure maple syrup which are unrefined and contain trace beneficial minerals. Control portions by making mini muesli bars, protein rich biscuits or veggie filled bliss balls.
For children 3 and older, offer healthier versions of their favourite snacks (like our nutritious banana bread or raspberry and pear muffins) packed with whole fruits and vegetables. Explain to them that certain foods are a “sometimes” food, and keep these out of the home to be enjoyed on occasion when out of the house - this way your child will know when to expect these foods and won’t nag for them daily. As your little one gets older, educate them by talking about and providing facts about sugar. Let them help you bake, use refined sugar alternatives like raw honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup as they are more nutritious than refined sugar (although they do contain similar amounts of sugar - hence the need for moderation!) Create structure and ensure that when your child gets home from school they know to expect a nutritious snack that will keep them satisfied until dinner time, and not a sugar-filled one.
Top Tips to Reduce Processed Sugar at Home
Keep junk food out of the home.
Little eyes see what the tummy wants. If biscuit and lolly jars are not in plain view, children will not be inclined to pester and nag for them.
Offer food at the appropriate time. Have agreed times for desserts and sweets, like on a Saturday after sport, when the whole family goes to get ice-cream. This way, children nag and pester less as they know when to expect “sometimes” foods.
When buying snacks, choose a child-sized package rather than a large one.
Decant sweet lollies or biscuits into smaller portions rather than taking along the whole bag when you’re out and about.
Use sugar substitutes.
Reduce the sugar content of homemade baked goods by adding in dates or a few drops of 100% natural stevia powder (not mixed with erythritol).
Swap sugary breakfast cereals for a whole grain breakfast cereal and sprinkle a little of your child’s favourite sugary one on top while they are transitioning. Another great trick is to sweeten with a teaspoon of carob powder.
Learn to read food labels.
Choose your family’s staples wisely and look for products with less than 5% added sugar – especially if there is not fruit or dairy present in the food, as these contribute naturally occurring sugars, which do not count towards your child’s overall sugar intake. For more information, on added sugars vs. naturally occurring sugars, see the Wholesome Child Book.
Mandy Sacher is a paediatric nutritionist, mum and author of the Wholesome Child Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook. You can learn more about Mandy's Group Workshops or connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.
LISTEN: Holly and Andrew on all the Santa-approved Christmas tricks and why parents actually make the best employees.