It’s hard enough to avoid eating sweets, but lately it has become equally difficult to avoid hearing about sugar. In mid-September, the news broke that in the 1960s, the sugar industry might have essentially paid off researchers to downplay sugar-associated health concerns and place the greater blame for increased risk of heart disease on saturated fat. The researchers’ work was published without any disclosure of the sugar industry’s involvement. That move might have influenced more than half a century of public health advice and is now being blamed for ushering in the era of low-fat, high-sugar foods.

In a statement, the Sugar Association acknowledged that the Sugar Research Foundation (which was a precursor to that group) should have been more transparent, but the association noted that transparency and disclosure standards were different then from what they are now and that “industry-funded research has been informative in addressing key issues.”  

Recently there has been even more evidence of the health risks of added sugars, especially for children. “I’m seeing fatty liver and other metabolic problems, like high triglycerides and insulin resistance—which are precursors to later heart disease—in children as young as 5, and scores of children developing type 2 diabetes by their mid-teens,” says David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s one thing when type 2 diabetes develops in 50- or 60-year-olds. It’s another when that clock starts ticking at age 10.”

That’s why the American Heart Association recently recommended that children consume less than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day—which amounts to 100 calories' worth. And it recommended no added sugars at all for kids younger than 2. According to the AHA, the average child is currently downing 80 grams (19 teaspoons) of the sweet stuff daily. By comparison, the Food and Drug Administration’s current dietary guidelines call for limiting added sugars to no more than 10 percent of total daily calories. For a child eating 1,800 calories a day, that would be 45 grams.

Added Sugars Are the Real Problem

Many of the foods we eat contain naturally occurring amounts of sugars—especially dairy, fruit, and some vegetables. When experts talk about reducing the intake of sugars, they don’t usually mean the naturally occurring kinds. They’re referring to added sugars, which is any type that’s added to a food or a recipe to increase the sweetness. Right now you can’t really tell how much of the sugars in a food are added from reading the Nutrition Facts label because both natural and added sugars are lumped together, but beginning in the summer of 2018, manufacturers will be required to separate them, listing both total and added sugars on food labels.

What exactly is so unhealthy about added sugars? The problem, apparently, goes beyond the concern of empty calories pushing more nutritious ones out of the diet. “The term ‘empty calories’ is misleading and implies that all calories are alike,” Ludwig says. “But certain foods affect the body in other ways beyond just calories.” The most common sugars are a combination of fructose and glucose. The liver is supposed to convert the fructose into energy, but when the body is flooded with too much of it too fast, it instead creates new fat molecules that can lead to fatty liver, high triglycerides, and insulin resistance.

Ludwig also notes that reducing foods that are high in added sugars (like candy and soda) and replacing them with other highly processed carbohydrates (like white bread) is not much better. The key is to shift the dietary focus away from added sugars and all processed carbohydrates and onto healthy fats, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and beans. According to Ludwig, research suggests that we could prevent more than half of the cases of heart disease and diabetes with that diet switch. 

Hidden Sugars in Kid Foods

Until you can get your children to trade sweet treats for an apple or some kale chips, it’s even more important to sleuth out the hidden sources of sugars in their (and your) diets. You already know you should limit their intake of candy, soda, sugary cereal, and the like, but what about some of the seemingly “healthier” snack foods and organic treats? In many cases, they are really no less sugar-laden—even if their sweetness comes from added sugar in one of its many other guises (like organic cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar, honey, or brown rice syrup). And sugar can lurk in places where you least expect it, such as bread and spaghetti sauce. You may not realize how quickly those amounts add up. The chart below highlights the surprising amount of sugars in some foods kids commonly eat.

This doesn’t mean that your family can never indulge in sweets again or that it’s crucial to eliminate almost all added sugars. “There’s no magic dose at which you’re completely safe and beyond that you’re at risk,” Ludwig reasons. So even if the AHA recommendation seems unattainable, any reduction you make will still benefit your health. “If you’re going to have sweets, have them after a balanced meal, serve a reasonable portion size, and do it only once in awhile,” Ludwig says. In other words, it’s pretty much what we’ve always known—eat sweets wisely and in moderation.
 

Product/Serving Size

Sugars

Portion of Daily Maximum Sugar Recommendation for Kids1

As Much Sugars As

Earth's Best Organic Yummy Tummy Instant Oatmeal, Apple Cinnamon, 1 pouch

9 g

38%

Almost 1 cup of Froot Loops

Nature's Path Organic EnviroKidzs Choco Chimps cereal, 3/4 cup

9 g 38%

2.5 Chips Ahoy cookies

Dunkin' Donuts Multigrain Bagel, 1

8 g33%

4 Dunkin' Munchkins, Old Fashioned

SpaghettiOs, 1 cup11 g46%

1 Entenmann's Blueberry Muffin

Welch's Fruit Snacks, 15 pieces

12 g50%

11 Haribo Gummy Bears

YoKids Organic Blueberry Yogurt2, 3.7-ounce pouch

14 g58%

1/2 cup Breyers Strawberry Ice Cream2

Gatorade, 12 ounces21 g88%7 ounces of Sprite
Nutella, 2 tablespoons

21 g

88%

2.5 tablespoons Betty Crocker Rich and Creamy Chocolate Frosting

  1. American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars intake in children's diets to less than 25 grams per day. These percentages are calculated for 24 grams.
  2. Some of the sugars are naturally present in dairy.