Do you know how much sugar your child eats? Chances are it's a lot more than you think.
sandwich filled with sugar
Credit: James Wojick

Treats and Consequences

No mom in her right mind would pack her child's lunch box with nothing but four Twinkies. You probably stick with the classics: maybe peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread, a cup of applesauce, and fruit punch. Protein-rich peanut butter, fruit, fiber-filled bread – it's perfect, right?

Maybe not. Sure, your child would get plenty of nutrients, but she'd also get a whopping 76 grams of sugar. That's 16 teaspoons of sugar -- even more than what's in those four Twinkies. Shocking, right?

While there are no specific sugar-consumption recommendations for kids, adults on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet shouldn't eat more than 40 grams of added sugar. Yet your child will eat twice that in this one meal. And you haven't factored in the syrup on her morning waffles, the soda she'll drink after school, and the graham crackers she'll munch on before bed.

"Most parents have no idea how much sugar their kids eat," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, MD. "So much is added to even healthy foods that your child could eat what looks like a pretty balanced diet that's still full of sugar."

It's not a news flash that sugar is bad for kids. What is eye-opening is just how unhealthy it is – and how much of it children eat despite the health warnings. The average kid under 12 consumes 49 pounds of sugar per year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Even scarier is that a twenty- or thirtysomething adult's intake is actually lower (46 pounds). That means your child is gobbling up more sugar than you are, even though her body may be less than half the size of yours.

It's not hard to see why kids love sugar. After all, babies are born with a preference for it, though their tastes typically broaden as they grow. But because so many foods marketed to kids, from oatmeal to fruit rolls, are now supersweet, children may struggle to accept other flavors, such as the bitter taste of many green veggies. "Sugar overload may prevent their taste buds from maturing," says David Ludwig, MD, Parents advisor and director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston. "Kids won't develop the ability to appreciate, let alone eat, a variety of foods."

Of course, not all sugar is evil. Fruits, starchy veggies, and milk all contain naturally occurring sugars, along with vital nutrients. "Unfortunately, this isn't the type of sugar kids usually eat," says Dr. Shu. And the more supersweet, processed foods they consume, the less appealing "real," naturally sweet foods seem. For example, a child who gets used to watermelon-flavored candy will find the taste of an actual watermelon disappointing because it's not as sugary, says Dr. Shu.

The result? Sweet foods eventually edge out healthier fare from your child's diet. Pennsylvania State University researchers found that the more added sugar children had in their diets, the less likely they were to eat grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy. For example, as children get older they tend to drink more soda and less milk, depriving growing bones of calcium. "It's basically a state of malnutrition," says Dr. Ludwig. "Kids eat too many calories but not enough nutrients."

glass filled with sugar
Credit: James Wojick

Long-Term Trouble

Even if the effects of sugar overload don't seem obvious now, they can hurt your child's health later. "Eating too much of it can make kids gain weight, which then puts them at greater risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol -- three major contributors to heart disease," says Dr. Shu. Today, one in three American children are too heavy; a recent study in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity suggests that nearly half will be overweight by 2010.

As a result, these "adult" conditions strike earlier than ever. For example, less than 5 percent of kids diagnosed with diabetes in 1994 had type 2 (formerly called "adult-onset" diabetes). Today, it's 30 to 50 percent. "When these problems develop in elementary school instead of middle age, the advanced stage of heart disease tends to occur earlier too," says Francine Kaufman, director of the Comprehensive Childhood Diabetes Center at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. "That means a child with high blood pressure could have a heart attack at 35."

lunch box filled with sugar
Credit: James Wojick

Pull Your Kid's Sweet Tooth

Don't be fooled by food labels. On the nutrition-facts label, sugar is measured in grams -- which isn't at all easy to visualize. Keep in mind that four grams is about one teaspoon.

Pay attention to "natural" sweeteners like strawberry purees and concentrates, which are commonly found in foods such as fruit rolls and flavored applesauce. "They're just processed sugar by another name," says Dr. Ludwig.

Think small. When you do dish out a dessert like ice cream, put it in teacups, not soup bowls.

Teach kids to be choosy. Let children have a treat, but only one each day, says Margo Wootan, PhD, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. When Dr. Wootan and her daughter go out to dinner, her daughter knows she can have either soda or dessert -- but not both. "You need to put sweets back in the proper place in your child's diet," she says.

Avoid processed foods. The more control you have over what your child eats, the better. For example, one packet of maple- and brown-sugar?flavored oatmeal has 13 grams of sugar. You can add these ingredients to regular oatmeal yourself (which has no sugar), using half the sweetener.

Look beyond the usual suspects. Added sugar often pops up in seemingly healthy foods, like low-fat or whole wheat products. A whole wheat bagel, for example, can have eight grams of sugar – six more than a plain one. Compare brands to find the lowest amount.

Make compromises. Banning sugary cereal will just make your child want it more. Let him have it, but only if he mixes it with a whole-grain one with no added sugars.

Skip the soda. Ditch the liquid sugar by helping your kids make their own fizzy drinks. Get a bottle of seltzer, add some juice, and they can mix up any flavor they want. Six ounces of seltzer plus two ounces of orange juice contains about six grams of sugar, versus 35 grams in a can of orange soda.

Spot the Hidden Sugar

When kids clamor for something sweet, it's better to offer them something with naturally occurring sugars – not the processed stuff. But in a world of packaged food, how can you tell them apart? The answer isn't simple. Unlike the "fats" portion of the nutrition-facts label (which is broken down into saturated, unsaturated, and more), the FDA doesn't require manufacturers to reveal how much sugar is added and how much is natural. Companies consider the sugar breakdown proprietary information and "part of the formulation of the product" (meaning they don't have to give up their secret recipes). Plus, they may not want you to know how much sugar is really in there.

So it's up to you to check the ingredient list. If high-fructose corn syrup is at the top, that's where most of the sweetness is coming from. If apples are listed first, then that's the source. To find added sugar, look for corn syrup or sweetener, dextrose, fructose, honey, or molasses, to name a few. And remember: The more processed an item is, the more likely it contains added sugar.

Should You Go Faux?

So your child is nuts for sugar – but you're not crazy about all those calories (and cavities). Are sugar substitutes the answer? For active, healthy-weight kids, "there's really no good reason to give them artificially sweetened foods and drinks," says Lona Sandon, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. It's smarter to avoid serving unhealthy, processed foods, and then allow for occasional portions of real sugar.

But if your child is overweight, swapping out the sugary stuff for lower-calorie versions made with sugar substitutes can make a difference. All products are considered safe, even for kids. "They've all been rigorously tested," says George L. Blackburn, MD, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at Harvard Medical School. –Sally Kuzemchak, RD

Sweet Treat Makeovers

Instead of: Flavored yogurtTry: Plain yogurt with mix-ins. Add brown sugar, honey (if your child is over 1 year old), fruit, or raisins.

Bonus: Honey may help the body absorb calcium.

Instead of: Canned fruitTry: Chopping up the fresh stuff. A cup of fresh peaches has 13 grams of sugar; the same amount canned in light syrup has 33 grams.

Instead of: Maple syrupTry: Topping pancakes or waffles with preserves. The low-sugar variety has only six grams of sugar per tablespoon. (Syrup has 39 grams per 1/4 cup.)

Instead of: Sweetened salad dressingsTry: Italian or ranch. You'll save up to four grams of sugar per two-tablespoon serving.

Instead of: Barbecue sauceTry: A dry spice rub or your kids' favorite taco seasonings the next time you prep meat for the grill. BBQ sauce can have up to 8 grams of sweetener per tablespoon!

Parents Magazine