Sugar. There’s been an explosion of interest over the past few years, but how many people actually know why we should be limiting it, and how much exactly should we be limiting our children to?
When I ask most parents why they believe we should avoid sugar I usually get answers such as “It’s bad for you” or “It causes Type 2 diabetes”, neither of which are really correct. With so much hype and hysteria over sugar, the real evidence and concern with it’s intake has been lost, such that people now think it’s mere consumption is going to do them harm.
Back in 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) released their Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children. You can read the full document here: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/149782/1/9789241549028_eng.pdf?ua=1
This guideline specifically looks at what we call “free sugars” in our diet. That’s sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides – e.g. glucose syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, rice malt syrup etc..) added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates” (WHO, 2015).
This guideline reviewed all the current evidence (at the time of publication) as to why we should be avoiding sugar and went on to make recommendations as to how much sugar adults and children should be limiting ourselves to. You may be surprised to learn that the evidence for avoiding (or rather limiting) sugar relates primarily to obesity and dental caries. Sugar is often cited as a cause or risk factor for developing a wide range of diseases ranging from Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. However the fact of the matter is that that evidence simply doesn’t exist (yet). What we do know is that overweight and obesity are independent risk factors for chronic or non communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. Going back to the WHO guideline, they found a MODERATE level of evidence that lower intakes of free sugars was associated with lower body weights in both adults and children. Please note that this does not mean that sugar causes you to become overweight or obese either. It simply means that people who consumed a diet higher in sugar, were more likely to have a higher body weight. The development of overweight and obesity is a complex issue and trying to narrow it’s cause down to one single nutrient is misguided, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The WHO guideline specifically recommends trying to reduce the intake of free sugars to 10% or less of your total daily energy intake (this is for both adults and children). There is a further recommendation to reduce it to 5% of total daily energy intake, however, the evidence for this recommendation was stated as WEAK, so for the purposes of this article, we will stick with 10%. I’ve represented this below as the number of teaspoons of sugar an “average” sized child with a light activity level, would need to limit their intake to each day.
So I wondered how I was fairing with my own children in relation to this guideline? I have always been well aware of which foods contain added sugars and done my best to limit their intake. I’m no sugar nazzi though, and my personal opinion is that if sugar is packaged up in a food that also contains many nutrients that are beneficial, then I’m fairly happy to include that food in our diet. We certainly limit our intake of foods that are high in sugar but offer little other nutritional benefit (think lollies, cakes, biscuits etc..). That said, we still enjoy a slice of home made cake, ice cream and chocolate in moderation. But day to day with my children’s typical diet, how was I really doing? Was I anywhere near the guideline, or had I totally blown it without even realising? I have to admit I was a bit nervous to take a closer look. Maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was?
I present to you my 4 yr old’s intake on a typical kindy day. All of the free sugars he consumed are listed in bold.
Breakfast: Rolled oats and 1 tsp of honey with reduced fat milk and a glass of unsweetened orange juice
SUGAR: 4 teaspoons
Lunch box: coco cranberry bliss ball, apple + carrot muffin, wrap with roast chicken, carrots, cucumber, rockmelon, plain milk and an apple (to be shared at fruit time)
SUGAR: 2.5 teaspoons
After kindy snack: Strawberry smoothie (frozen strawberries, strawberry yoghurt, water), he also then asked for another coco cranberry bliss ball
SUGAR: less than 1.5 teaspoon
Spaghetti Bolognese, bread and olive oil spread and a fruit platter (he only ate the watermelon)
Total: just under 8 teaspoons
Well I have to say I was pretty relieved to see that I’d just made it under the 10% guideline, but I certainly hadn’t made it any lower! I’d also have to admit they we certainly do have “blow out” days from time to time where my child’s sugar intake would be much higher. For example earlier this week I treated the family to a homemade dessert of chocolate self saucing pudding which I served with 1 scoop of ice cream. A dessert like this would have around 3 teaspoons of sugar in it.
I have to say on the whole I feel pretty happy that I’ve got my child’s typical diet fairly much where I want it to be. Sure, I could improve a little by not offering orange juice at breakfast, but he enjoys this and the vitamin C also helps him absorb the iron from his oats (a serve of whole fruit would offer the same benefit).
Calculating your child’s sugar intake is tricky business. It was difficult for me and I’m a dietitian! That’s primarily because our food labels don’t currently require manufacturers to separately list added or free sugars independent of any naturally occurring sugars. So at home, rather than focus on how much sugar your child is currently consuming I’d focus on just minimising fee sugars where you can.
If you want to try and reduce your child’s sugar intake my top tips would be:
1. Watch your child’s intake of sweetened beverages, don’t offer soft drinks or cordials, keep juice to no more than 1/2 a cup per day (unsweetened at that), alternate offering sweetened milk drinks with plain milk or sweeten with fruit (smoothie style)
2. Reduce your intake of processed/packaged snacks – most store bought snacks have a surprising amount of sugar added. Better to make your own and experiment with reducing the sugar content of some of your go to recipes
3. Avoid sugary breakfast cereals and opt for wholegrain “plain” varieties, rolled oats, weetbix and shredded wheat biscuits are go to’s in our house.
3. Keep occasional food as just that, occasional
4. Read labels on the food you buy. Ingredients have to be listed from most to least, if sugar is high up on the list you probably want to avoid it.
On that note, maple syrup, honey, rice malt syrup, glucose syrup, coconut sugar and rapadura sugar are all sugar. Yes some contain more glucose and others more fructose (or other mono or disaccharides), but they ALL need to be counted as sugar. You may have noticed a surge in popularity of so called natural or less refined sweeteners in the community. I see many recipes labeled as either “sugar free” or “refined sugar free” only to see they contain a LOT of honey or maple syrup. Whilst it’s true that many of these “natural” sweeteners do contain other nutrients (for example 100ml of maple syrup contains 89mg of calcium and 1.6 mg of iron amongst other things) whereas white refined sugar offers nothing beyond its carbohydrate content. The point I’d make, though, is that if we are actively working on trying to reduce our intake of sugars, I wouldn’t be focussing on these products for adding extra nutrients into my diet. They are also very expensive. Whilst I do personally use of these “natural” sweeteners, I do so more out of taste more so than for any nutritional benefits they confer. That said, it you can afford it, there’s no harm using honey or maple syrup as your sweetener of choice at home.
How do you think you’re fairing with your child’s sugar intake?
Julia @Bloom x