The Scoop on Food

The Truth About Kids and Added Sugars

If you believe everything you read about added sugars, you'll be convinced they're toxic time bombs just waiting to kill us all. So don't believe everything you read. The truth is that sugar is not a poisonous substance. Your child can have a cookie without risking his life. Yet it's also true that most people (especially most kids) are getting too much of it--and that a high-sugar diet isn't good for health.

But what exactly, does "too much" mean? I talk to a lot of parents who are concerned about sugar, shocked that a can of soda contains nearly 10 teaspoons of the stuff, but really don't know what that means in the grand scheme of things.

For starters, remember that ADDED sugars are what health experts are worried about. That's the kind put in by manufacturers or by you at home. It's NOT the natural kind found in fruit and dairy. (Ever noticed that plain yogurt or milk still has sugar? That's natural.) Unfortunately, the nutrition facts label doesn't distinguish between added and natural (yet!) but you can still use this label-reading trick: Every 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon. So candy with 8 grams of sugar per serving has the equivalent of two teaspoons of sugar.

Though there's no Daily Value for added sugars, word is that the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans will likely suggest no more than 10 percent of calories should come from it. For kids, that looks like this:

  • Children ages 2-3: No more than 100 calories from added sugar (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams)
  • Children ages 4-8: No more than 120-140 calories from added sugar (about 7-8 teaspoons or 28-32 grams)

That sounds like an awful lot—until you consider how much is actually in foods and drinks:

  • Sheet of graham crackers: 1 tsp
  • Chocolate chip granola bar: 1 tsp
  • Small bowl of honey-flavored "o" cereal: 2 tsp
  • Package of gummy fruit snacks: 2.5 tsp
  • Packet of peach-flavored instant oatmeal: 3 tsp
  • Pouch of fruit punch: 3 tsp
  • Cup of sports drink: 3.5 tsp
  • 2 tablespoons chocolate hazelnut spread: 5 tsp
  • Chocolate cupcake with frosting: 9 tsp

Suddenly, the recommendations start to look a little tough. Have a day with a birthday party, soccer game snack, and a lollipop at the bank, and they look downright impossible.

So here's my advice: Though it's important to be aware and look at nutrition labels for sugar content, obsessing over numbers or counting up sugar grams for the day is no way to live. Instead, think big picture. What foods and drinks are providing the most sugar for your family—and is there a way to reduce that?

For instance, mix plain yogurt with flavored. Ditto for chocolate milk and regular milk. Designate a couple of "dessert nights" each week instead of serving it every day. Stop buying soda or buy it only occasionally. Cutting back on sweetened beverages in general can go a long way in reducing intake. The bottom line is that while there's no need to cut it out completely, little moves like these can add up to less sugar for everyone.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid

Image: Spoon of sugar via Shutterstock