The ‘S’ Word: How much sugar is ‘too much’?

Other mommies make the assumption that not so much as a granule of sugar has touched my son’s lips because I happen to have a blog devoted to healthy eating for kids. I get asked, in all earnest, if I have ever actually given my son sugar. If you’re wondering, then the short answer to that questions is “Um..YES”.

We go to birthday parties, family get-togethers and outings, and sometimes it is just downright unavoidable. I’m a realist when it comes to my child and healthy eating: I know that there will be times where a home-cooked meal, sans salt or sugar, isn’t on-hand and compromises need to be made. We are living in a modern society after all, where parents are more time-strapped than ever before, and you need to make choices that best work for your family and your lifestyle.

So, what exactly is ‘too much’ sugar? The American Heart Association (AHA) has recently confirmed that children between the ages of 2-18 should receive no more than 6 teaspoons a day. The World Health Organisation recommends that no more than 5% of your child’s daily calories come from sugar. Note that this is in relation to added sugars (not sugars naturally occurring in foods) and includes; table sugar, fructose, syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, nectar, fruit concentrate, crystalline, molasses, agave, honey, coconut sugar (and pretty much any other type of calorific sweetener that can be added to food and drinks).

6 teaspoons sounds like quite a substantial amount of sugar to get through, right? To put this into perspective, the below is a list of just some of the household favourites we find in our kitchens (over and above the obvious baddies like sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolate):

  • Tinned fruit in syrup can contain up to 18g of sugar (around 4.5 teaspoons of sugar) per small serving cup.
  • Apple sauce and other sweetened baby food can contain anywhere up to 20g sugar (5 teaspoons) per small serving cup/jar.
  • Sweetened yoghurt, drinking yoghurt and flavoured milks can contain around 20g sugar (5 teaspoons) per cup.
  • Custard and other pudding cups for babies and toddlers can contain anywhere up to 20g of sugar (5 teaspoons) per serving.
  • Prepared muffins or premixed muffin mixtures can contain anywhere up to 32g (8 teaspoons) of sugar per serving.
  • Granola and cereal bars can contain more than 20g (5 teaspoons) of sugar per bar.
  • Sugary cereals can contain more than 12g of sugar (3 teaspoons) per serving, with ‘healthier’ cereal options not doing any better (don’t be fooled by high-fibre, wheat or heart-healthy options).
  • Instant and flavoured porridges and oats can include anywhere from 12g (3 teaspoons) of sugar per serving pouch.
  • Bottled sauces can contain anywhere from 12g sugar (3 teaspoons) per half a cup serving.
  • Tomato sauce and BBQ sauce contains anywhere around 7g (1.5-2 teaspoons) of sugar per tablespoon.
  • A small glass of fruit juice containing fruit concentrate contains the equivalent of up to 36g (9 teaspoons) sugar.
  •  Fruit jam can contain anywhere from 6g sugar (1.5 teaspoons) per tablespoon.

Ok, so we know sugar is pretty much in all the types of foods we find in most households but what is so bad about it? A diet high in sugar has been linked to a host of nasties that we would all rather avoid: flu symptoms, a weakened immune system, concentration problems, acid reflux resulting from increased acidity, tooth decay, and then the bigger issues like obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 Diabetes later in life.

So how can you ensure your child is not consuming in excess of the recommended 6 teaspoons daily? Provided your child is eating a wholesome balanced diet, made-up primarily of whole and unprocessed foods, then this goal should be easy to achieve. Striving for a whole diet means including a variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat (for children younger than 2 years, you want to choose higher fat dairy and meat options to sustain their developmental needs).

According to lead author Hayley Syrad of UCL’s Health and Behaviour Centre, dietary preferences and habits are established in the first two years of life. For this reason it is best to opt for whole foods wherever possible in the early days of your child’s development and then to continue these good habits thereafter.

My two cents? Ultimately you should try and opt for homemade and unprocessed meals where possible, and for healthier choices when eating in restaurants and when buying ready-made foods. Although we are all human and need to live a little, there is a fine line between what is deemed ‘the unavoidable’ by parents and taking the time to plan ahead to make smarter and healthier choices for your little ones.

*The above information should never replace the advice of your GP, paed or nurse.

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