Kids and Sugar: Is your child 'too sweet'?

Kids and Sugar: Is your child 'too sweet'?

You wouldn't pack a lunchbox for your child filled with chocolates and sweets! You are probably sticking to the usual, reliable peanut butter and jam sandwich, fruit juice, yoghurt and granola bar? Healthy, not? … Not necessarily!
These foods can be filled with sugar and probably totals more than what is recommended for children. Sugar intake can be a silent danger, even when you think your child is not eating that unhealthy.
Too much sugar, can increase your child's risk for obesity and lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers.


How much sugar is too much for your child?

The World Health Organization strongly recommends a maximum sugar intake of less than 10% of a child's daily energy intake. That is equal to less than 25g or 6 teaspoons sugar per day. An article in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children in South Africa consume between 40 and 60g (that is 10 to 15 teaspoons) sugar per day, and that teenagers consume as much as 100g (25 teaspoons) sugar per day.
A contributing factor, is the large amounts of hidden sugars in some foods. These sugars are normally found in products in which you would not expect to find it, e.g. cereals, smoothies, juice and sauces. These sugars are refined and has no nutritional value.

What are the dangers of a high sugar intake for children?

Evidence shows that a high added sugar intake and a high intake of free sugars (those added by manufacturers of food and those that are -present in fruit juice, syrup and honey) increase the total energy intake of children and the risk for overweight and obesity. Obesity leads to an increased risk for non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Sugars found in milk and fruit does not pose a risk and is called natural sugars.
A high sugar intake increases the risk for tooth decay - the most common non-communicable disease in the world. The amount of decay is influenced by the timing and frequency of sugar intake and how often a child brushes their teeth. It is better for a child to drink sweet beverages with a meal, rather than between meals.
High sugar intake influences children to choose sugary foods later in life, instead of nutritious proteins, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables - contributing to lifelong unhealthy food choices.

Sugar myths

There is no convincing evidence that ties sugar intake to hyperactivity among children diagnosed with ADHD and those who do not have ADHD.
Another myth that I hear often, is that fruit should be avoided because it contains large amounts of sugar. That is not true at all! The sugar in a fruit is built into the cells of the fruit and is surrounded by fibre and nutrients. It has a low glycemic index and causes a slow and steady increase in blood glucose levels - promoting satiety and better energy levels. A typical fruit contains a mere 12 grams of carbohydrates in total. Fruits are valuable sources of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as phytonutrients that protect against lifestyle diseases.

Know what your child is eating

Read food labels! Look at the amount of added sugar per 100 grams/ millilitres portion of a food.

In general:
- A food or drink that contains less than 5 grams of sugar per 100 g or 100 ml is low in sugar
- 5 - 15 grams is a moderate sugar content
- More than 15g sugar per 100g or 100 ml is high in sugar

Or calculate the amount of sugar a product has in terms of teaspoons. 4g sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar. So, if a cold drink contains 40g of sugar, it is equal to 10 teaspoons sugar!

Not all sugars are bad

Milk contains the natural sugar, lactose. Milk is an excellent source of protein and calcium and has a low GI. 100 ml of flavoured yoghurt is another example of a food that contains sugar that is packed in-between nutrients like protein and calcium, and has a low GI. My advice is to look at a food or product in entirety, before judging it only based on sugar content. Rather look at the portion of the food that your child eats, instead of eliminating it all together. Also consider the total carbohydrate content.

Should children never eat sweet treats?

Although sugar does not really have benefits, it does add to the enjoyment of foods and it does not mean that is should be avoided altogether.
- Rather look at the portion of sweets that your child eats at a time. They don't have to eat a packet of sweets or an entire chocolate by themselves.
- Limit concentrated sweet foods like cold drinks, instead of being pedantic about the 1 or 2 teaspoons sugar your child might add to a food and drink
- Choose one or two days a week where the family shares sweets and enjoys it together. It does not help if the children are deprived but mom eats a chocolate a day!

Lead by example and enjoy sweets occasionally!

- Have healthy treats available in the house and have specific treat days where sweets are enjoyed
- Include your child in food choices, and don't be too strict around food intake. Rather explain to your child how various foods influence their body
- Read and compare food labels and brands for options that have less sugar
- Mix half of a sweetened product with half of an unsweetened version to reduce the sugar content e.g. mix half sweetened yoghurt with half unsweetened yoghurt, or do the same with breakfast cereals

Take a random day now and then, and calculate the total amount of sugar your child consumes in a day… Is it less than 25g of sugar? If not, your child might be too sweet!


Claudine Ryan, Registered Dietitian, RD (SA)

Claudine Ryan, Registered Dietitian, RD (SA)

Claudine Ryan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics and is registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. Claudine is passionate about people and their health, and enjoys helping others to optimise their health and manage their chronic lifestyle related diseases through sound nutritional therapy and practical advice.