Sweets, Sugar & Children - how much is too much?

Barely a day goes by when sugar is not mentioned in the news. Ok we know it’s not good for any of us, particularly our children, but what parent doesn’t occasionally give in to the demanding (and whingeing) child!

Children are obsessed with all things sweet and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Babies are born with highly sensitive sweet taste buds which have an evolutionary purpose -survival! A baby’s preference for sweet help her accept her mother’s milk. This preference lasts throughout childhood, kids don’t just like sweet foods, they love sweet food! The preferred intensity of sweetness for a child is almost twice that of adults. For example most grown-up’s would agree that a boiled sweet was sweet enough, however most kids would prefer something twice as sweet! Children’s tastebuds are very different from adults, but their desire for sweet flavours declines as they enter the teenage years. You’ve just got to hang on till then!

Knowing about their preference for sweet foods can really help. As a nutrition expert, you would’ve thought my kids eat beautifully. I’ll let you into little secret, they don’t. While I do prepare healthy balanced meals I know their preference is for something entirely different, and no matter how much they eat at mealtimes they’ve always got room for pudding. And the science behind this is that they haven’t satisfied their desire for sweetness.

But all is not lost, you just need a plan or ‘sweet strategy’. 

But first, why is sugar so bad? Sugar itself isn’t toxic. It’s a simple carbohydrate which means that it’s broken down in our bodies into carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and provides us with energy. But unfortunatly it doesn’t contain much else, there are no additional vitamins, minerals or nutrients. Just energy. This is why sweets and sugary foods are often called ‘empty calories’. The biggest problem with sugar however is the amount that we eat. The World Health Organisation recommends that sugar makes up no more than 5% of the energy we get from food, during weaning babies don’t consume more than this but afterwards the problem grows. The average 1-3 year old consumes more than double the recommendation at 11.3% , 4-10 year olds consume 13.5% and our 11 to 18-year-olds consume 14.1% which is almost triple the recommended maximum amount. Eating empty calories means eating less of other nourishing foods causing a displacement of other essential nutrients or it means that children end up eating more calories than they need contributing towards become overweight. In addition, we all know that sugar causes tooth decay and dental caries.

Sugar is often added to foods for the simple reason that it makes them taste good, its also a cheep and abundant ingredient. It can be found in unexpected places like jars of curry sauce, salad dressings and even bread! Shopping for kids snack products can be enlightening, even the healthiest looking ‘fruit, cereal or grain based bars’ are around a third sugar. If you recall our children’s innate desire for very sweet foods, you can see why food manufacturers engineer foods that appeal directly to them, in-fact they make children crave them! A scientific study showed that children who were given a sweetened drink every day, drank more of it and rated it higher on their ‘like’ scale after just 8 days - so the more they have it, the more they want it!

When we talk about having too much sugar we mean too much ‘free sugars’. This is sugar that is added to food and not naturally present for example the sugar found in a biscuit, fizzy drink or chocolate bar.  What can be confusing, is that natural sugars found in honey, maple syrup or fruit juice are also free sugars. If you eat a whole piece of fruit such as an apple the natural sugar is not counted as a free sugar, but if you press that apple and extract the juice, the natural sugar is now a free sugar.

So back to the strategy to help deal with multiple requests for puddings, ice cream or sweets or cake! Here’s my 5 point plan for keeping kids healthy:

  1. Be careful not to be too restrictive of sugar - forbidding certain foods is a guaranteed (and scientifically proven) way of making them more desirable.
  2. Agree with our kids when they can have sweet foods. This might be every day after their evening meal or just at weekends. Its up to you to decide on what feels right for your family. We have a small sweet treat at the end of each meal and ice cream Friday which works really well as the kids know what to expect and they don’t ask for it at other times. 
  3. Check your portion sizes. our small sweet treats are small - for example a mini cupcake, a 1 inch square flapjack, 1 scoop of ice cream etc.
  4. Keep on top of hunger by scheduling meals and snacks and slicing to your timetable. When your child feels hungry, they’re probably ‘starving! Being engaged in an activity can distract them from their hunger cues and so when they come asking for food they are likely craving sugar, its the quickest and easiest way for the human body to get energy. Toddlers need to eat something every 2-3 hours and school age children every 3 to 3.5 hours. Teens can eek it out bit longer but ultimately all kids need snacks in between their meals in order to get enough nutrients for healthy growth and development.
  5. Start making small changes now. Gradually start checking food labels to look for the lowest sugar options (less than 5g sugar per 100g is a low sugar food) and adapting recipes to make them less sweet is the most successful way to manage the change. Not only will the change be less noticeable, but you’ll avoid that sugar crash that comes with withdrawal… and we all want to avoid living with grumpy kids!

Check out my recipe for reduced sugar tomato ketchup. My recipe contains 13g sugar per 100g and standard ketchup contains 24g sugar per 100g.

 Do you have a sweet strategy? Comment below and let me know what works for you.