Though warnings about high-sugar diets seem to be growing louder every day, a surprising new poll reveals that nearly 80 percent of parents don't actually understand what added sugars are—and most underestimate how much their kids get.
In the poll, conducted by KIND Snacks and Morning Consult, most parents said that their kids ate between 26-50 grams of sugar per day—that's about 6-12 teaspoons' worth. In reality, children ages 4-8 are getting about 21 teaspoons a day, and teenagers are eating up to 34 teaspoons. While parents corrected identified corn syrup and cane sugar as added sugars, most didn't put honey, molasses, or agave syrup in that same category.
Here are the facts so you can be smart about sugar:
There's room for some sugar. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limited added sugars, since diets lower in added sugar are associated with lower risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even some kinds of cancers in adults (and a lower risk for cavities among kids). But you don't have to eliminate them. Their guideline is no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugar. What does that look like for your child?
Ages 2-3: Up to 25 grams per day (6 teaspoons)
Ages 4-8: Up to 32 grams per day (7-8 teaspoons)
Ages 9-13: Up to 44 grams per day (10-11 teaspoons)
The natural sugars in whole fruit and milk aren't a concern. Fruit contains fructose and dairy contains lactose, both naturally occurring sugars (which is why you'll still see sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel for 100 percent juice or plain yogurt). Because milk, yogurt, and whole fruit contain so many other nutrients, those natural sugars aren't a concern. The exception: Fruit juice (even 100 percent) is a very concentrated source of natural sugar and calories, which is why it's now recommended to limit portions for kids (and avoid it completely for babies).
Honey, molasses, agave, and maple syrup are ALL forms of sugar. Added sugars are the kind put in by manufacturers, whether that's in the form high fructose corn syrup or honey. Many parents are using honey and maple syrup as sweeteners because they seem more natural than white sugar, but they're still considered added sugars and shouldn't be poured on with reckless abandon.
It will be easier to spot sugar on the food label. Food labels are getting a makeover and featuring added sugar more prominently. Instead of lumping all sugars together in one line, the new Nutrition Facts Panel will break out added sugars. So in a fruit-flavored yogurt, you'll be able to see how much of the sugar is natural and how much was put in by the manufacturer. Some brands are already listing added sugars on their labels, while others haven't made the switch yet (though all companies were supposed to comply by next summer, that date has been extended).
The best place to start is drinks. The top source of added sugar for kids and adults is sugar-sweetened drinks, followed by snacks and sweets. So if you want to cut back quickly and easily, scale back on beverages like soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened tea, and your family's sugar consumption will definitely drop.
Being too restrictive isn't smart. I cringe when I hear people putting their families on a "sugar detox" or severely limiting sugar. Research has shown that restricting foods only makes them more appealing (and that's true for both kids and adults). Allow some sweetness in your child's life and don't label sugar as "toxic" or "bad."
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.