It’s long been known that sugar is bad for children’s teeth (and adults’ teeth too) but it’s only relatively recently that health experts have been expressing major concern about children’s sugar consumption in general and the impact it is having on their health.
There are two basic reasons why experts are worried about the amount of sugar children are eating these days. Firstly, it contributes to childhood obesity and its associated issues. Secondly it gets children into the habit of eating sugary foods and, as all parents know, habits developed in childhood tend to carry on into adulthood.
At the same time, however, sugar is one of those “naughty-but-nice” treats, which can form part of many of childhood’s best memories, birthday cakes and christmas cakes, ice creams and cotton candy. Fundamentally only the biggest killjoys would argue with the idea that “a little of what you fancy does you good”. The key word in that sentence, however, is “little”. Sugar is not meant to be an everyday food, it’s meant to be a treat food, kept for special occasions.
That brings us back to our original question. When looking at the issue of sugar in a child’s diet, how much is too much?
According to the American Heart Association the answer is none at all until your child is at least 2 years old and then a maximum of 6 teaspoons (just under an ounce) of added sugar each day and at most one 8-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage per week.
The eagle-eyed will have noticed that the recommendation used the word “added sugar” rather than just sugar. Natural sugars such as those found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products are just fine. They come along with a whole pile of nutrients and form a crucial part of a healthy, wholefood-rich diet. Basically the AHA and other health experts are talking about refined sugar, which can come in a variety of guises.
When hearing the word “sugar”, it’s probably a safe bet that most people would immediately think of either powdered or cubed cane sugar of the sort found in supermarkets from coast to coast. In actual fact, however, although that may be the most obvious and maybe the most common form of refined sugar, there are plenty of others and sometimes food manufacturers can be very cunning when it comes to disguising them and/or making them seem healthier than the actually are.
For example, we mentioned previously that the natural sugars found in fruit and vegetables and dairy products were absolutely fine. That’s true. It’s also true that fructose and lactose, as their names suggest, are simply the refined version of the natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables and dairy products. The point to note, however, is the word “refined”. Fructose and lactose are just as bad for you as standard cane sugar and so are the likes of corn syrup, molasses, glucose and sucrose.
Maple syrup and honey have a few added nutrients which makes them a marginal improvement, but by marginal we’re talking hair’s breadth. Really, these should be thought of as being in the same league as regular sugar. In short, if it’s being used in a way you’d associate with regular sugar, it probably is some form of regular sugar, even if it’s been given a fancy name. Because food manufacturers are so good at disguising sugar, it’s probably fair to say that the more you cook at home, the easier it will be to control your child’s sugar intake.
One of the main ways sugar can slip into a child’s diet without adults really noticing is through everyday mainstream products such as spreads, particularly peanut butter and fruit jellies. For peanut butter, just switch to the unsweetened sort and for fruit jellies, how about you forget traditional preserve-making and make your own the easy way.
Sugar has long been used in jellies because it helps to make fruit last a long time, especially over winter, but these days there are many better ways of preserving fruits, such as drying them. So instead of trying to make a sugar-filled preserve, just make an easy fruit spread using chia seeds instead of the traditional combination of sugar and pectin. It’s healthy, tasty and a great way to introduce your child to making food.
Speaking of introducing your child to food, the reason the AHA recommends that children under the age of two be given no added sugar at all is because this is a crucial period in the formation of their tastes in food and if they are given refined sugar in this part of their lives, they are much more likely to want it as they get older. Plus this is a period of rapid physical and mental development in which a young child really needs a nutrient-rich diet, not refined sugar.