Is There a Sweet Side to Sugar?

If you’re a parent, you know that many kids—perhaps even your own—overdo their sugar intake. Whether they slurp on a sugary drink, nosh on candy at the movie theater, enjoy a slice of cake or a cupcake at a party or enjoy some cookies after school, many sugary foods and beverages are nutrient poor and contribute calories—and not much else.

Because OD’ing on sugar can reduce intake of more nutritious foods, contribute to excess calorie intake and unhealthy weight gain and increase the risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like dental diseases (especially dental caries), the World Health Organization (WHO) recently drafted new revised guidelines for sugar intake.

Unlike current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association recommendations to limit “added sugars”—sugars added to foods during processing or preparation and at the table—the proposed WHO guidelines recommend a cap for “free sugars”. These “free sugars” are sugars added by manufacturers, cooks or consumers such as glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar) as well as sugars that naturally occur in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. Although the new proposed guidelines by the WHO include its previous recommendation of less than 10% of total calories from sugar daily, they also include a suggestion to reduce “free sugar” intake to below 5% of total energy intake daily for additional benefits.

For a child who consumes 1,200 to 1,600 calories daily, 10% of “free sugars” is the equivalent of 120 to 160 calories (or 30 to 40 grams); 5% of “free sugars” equals 60 to 80 calories (or 15 to 20 grams). To put this in context, one can coca-cola has about 39 grams of sugar and one package (1.69 ounce) M&M plain chocolate candies has about 31 grams of sugar. To find out how much total sugar and added sugar many products contain, respectively, you can check out the United States Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database and Food-A-Pedia.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and mother of two, I applaud any effort parents make to help their kids reduce their intake of added sugars for the reasons cited above. Capping added sugar intake by keeping fewer sweet snacks and desserts in the home and encouraging smaller portions of sugary treats when eating and drinking on the run can allow more opportunities for kids to incorporate nutritious foods that help them develop and manage their weight as they grow.

Although achieving current recommendations for sugar intake (and current as well as proposed WHO recommendations) would require children to dramatically reduce their current sugar intake, doing simple things like replacing even a few sugary sodas with sparkling or plain water, having smaller portions of candy and baked goods and eating more naturally sweet foods like fresh fruits or even dried fruit (with no sugar added) can help.

But while I so support shrinking sugar intake, I also believe that sometimes sugar has a sweet side. Just like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, sometimes, having a little sugar—white or brown sugar, honey, or even some maple or chocolate syrup or catsup—can help kids enjoy nutrient-rich foods like low fat or nonfat milk or yogurt, whole grain, high fiber cereals and fresh fruit. Dipping apple slices in some honey or chocolate sauce, sprinkling brown sugar or pouring some maple syrup on plain oatmeal, adding honey to plain yogurt or dipping grilled chicken slices in catsup can help kids enjoy the taste of the more nutritious foods and beverages. It’s all about context, and incorporating small amounts of sugar in otherwise nutritious meals that your kids eat is very different than allowing them to routinely drown in big boxes of candy or oversized cups of sugary sodas.

I also think there’s room in a child’s diet for small amounts of 100% fruit juice. Even though WHO considers fruit juice to be a source of “free sugars,” following American Academy of Pediatrics’ juice recommendations—up to 4 to 6 ounces daily for 1 to 6-year-olds and 8 to 12 ounces for 7 to 18-years-old—is prudent. Of course, fresh fruit is more fiber-rich and filling than juice, but many juices like orange, grape, apple and cranberry juice can deliver a good dose of key nutrients and other beneficial substances kids need.

Do you think there’s a sweet side to sugar?

Check out my previous Scoop on Food blog for tips to help kids satisfy a sweet tooth.

Image of strawberry on a spoon with sugar pouring over it via shutterstock.

 

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