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What We Need to Know About Added Sugar and Kids

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If you’re like many parents, you’re looking for easy ways to help your kids be healthier. For many, avoiding “added sugar” may be one of those ways. 

This post will cover why cutting back on added sugar may have a positive impact on our health, what we mean when we say “added sugar,” American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations on added sugar, and a few tips for limiting added sugar in our kids’ diets. 

What is “added sugar” ?

This definition is pretty self-explanatory. It’s when a prepared food has had sugar added to the product. However, it isn’t only the white granulated sugar that many of us think of. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “added sugar” includes

  • cane juice
  • corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • fruit nectars
  • glucose
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • honey
  • lactose
  • malt syrup
  • maltose
  • maple syrup
  • molasses
  • raw sugar
  • sucrose

So, if any of the ingredients listed above are on a packaged food label, it’s considered added sugar. It does not include the natural sugars already found in a piece of fruit, for example. 

In other words, even though an orange has plenty of natural sugar in it, it’s not considered “added sugar.”

Why do we need to think about added sugar? 

First, we do not need the extra sugar. In fact, one study found that added sugar was related to higher risk of death from heart disease (in adults).

In other words, it’s definitely not needed for nutrition. And, it has far-reaching negative health effects. 

As with many things, a few grams of extra sugar here and there are not necessarily dangerous for most people. However, extra sugar every day over a lifetime? We’re learning that that isn’t the best idea for most people. 

Which foods and drinks included added sugar?

For kids, the most common source of added sugar is their drinks. Juice, soda, and other sweetened drinks often have corn syrup, sugar, fructose, or sugar in addition to the water and other flavors. In other words, they’re full of this added sugar. 

Starting in 2020, food labels in the United States include added sugar specifically. Because there are increased health risks, this extra line on food labels can make it easier to spot.

How much added sugar is okay?

The AAP recommends no added sugar for children under age 2.

Children under age 1 need only breast milk, infant formula, or water (water when solids are introduced) to drink anyway, so it’s theoretically easier to avoid the added sugar that comes from sweetened drinks. 

Over age 2, the goal is less than 25 grams a day of added sugar. Depending on a child’s diet, this can be a challenge. 

For example, many cereals have over half the recommended added sugar in just a single serving. 

How to Limit Added Sugar in Kids

If you’re looking to cut down on added sugar, there are a few concrete steps. 

Avoiding any juice, soda, or sweetened drinks is a logical first step. Over age 1, water is enough for hydration. (Wondering if cow’s milk is necessary? See this post). 

Second, get in the habit of looking at labels when grocery shopping. With a little effort, there are often options with less added sugar. 

(I’ll update this post as I come across some options of common foods with less added sugar than alternatives. And, I’d love to hear your swaps or discoveries about added sugar. Please share in the comments).

Lastly, as I mentioned in my posts about baby food and food dyes, we really should strive for a food supply that promotes health in general. This means supporting businesses and policies that lead to healthier food for everyone. 

We can do our best to avoid added sugar, knowing that sometimes best isn’t always zero grams of added sugar.

Of course, it’s also important that we, as parents, give ourselves and each other a bit of grace. It isn’t always easy to have minimal added sugar every day. Sometimes doing our best most days  is just about as perfect as can be.

Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.

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