Most parents already keep an eye on things like desserts and fizzy drinks. What’s tricky is that there are so many other sources of hidden sugar in today’s food environment, and they can really pile up in a child’s diet without parents realizing it. What’s more, new types of sugars and sweeteners are being developed all of the time, making them hard to spot on food labels. This includes things that may sound healthy, like fruit juice concentrates and stevia.
Research shows that an excessively sweet diet from either regular sugars or alternative sweeteners can negatively impact kids from head to toe. Effects can range from immediate issues like gastrointestinal distress and moodiness to longer term conditions that develop slowly like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes. We explain all of these effects in our book, Sugarproof.
Here are four easy tips to identify and eliminate sneaky sources of sugars and outsmart marketing gimmicks. We go into much more detail in the book.
1. Skip Juice and Other Sweet Beverages
Juice isn’t often thought of as a source of added sugar. But since it has been removed from the fiber that was contained in the fruit, it’s a type of “free sugar” that the body absorbs quickly.
One glass of juice can easily contain the sugar that would have been in 4-5 pieces of fruit and it’s delivered quickly. What’s more, fruit juice is high in fructose, which is processed nearly exclusively in the liver, and too much can lead to the buildup of fat and the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Other drinks like squash and sports drinks are also high in either added sugars like fruit juice concentrate or sweeteners like sucralose, which we don’t recommend for kids.
If your kids are used to drinking juice or squash, try gradually watering it down until you can eventually replace it with water or herbal tea.
2. Be Wary of Health Claims on Products
So many products for kids have front of the label messaging that make them seem healthy, like “no added sugar” or “fruit juice sweetened.” These are actually clues to the fact that they probably contain some sort of low calorie alternative sweetener or a fruit juice concentrate, which can have negative effects for kids.
Also, many high sugar products are labelled with other messages like “whole grain” or “100% of daily vitamin C.”
Be careful to read the ingredient list as well as the nutrition facts to see what types of sugar or sweeteners are used and how high they are listed in the ingredient list.
3. Start the day with a “Sugarproof” breakfast
Many convenience breakfast foods for kids like cereals and yogurts are high in added sugar, and when kids start the day with these foods, they are likely to exceed suggested limits for added sugar for the day and board the “sugar roller coaster.” This means they experience a quick rise in blood sugar followed by a crash and subsequent craving for more sugar. This cycle can easily continue for the whole day.
To avoid this ride, try a breakfast that is low in sugar and high in fiber, and include a source of protein and healthy fat as well. Examples include steel cut (pinhead) oats with berries and nuts/seeds, eggs with avocado and whole grain toast, and pancakes with an extra egg white and a source of fiber (e.g. flax seeds) added to the batter and toppings other than maple syrup such as chopped fruit or plain yogurt.
4. Make your own snacks and treats when possible
Eighty percent of snack products marketed to children have added sugar in them. When you make your own snacks and treats, you know exactly what’s in them, and can sweeten them naturally with whole or dried fruits or choose savory alternatives altogether.
We have easy recipes in our book and on our blog as well such as Energy Bites and No-Bake Chocolate Sesame Squares.
Emily E. Ventura, PhD MPH
Dr. Emily Ventura is an experienced nutrition educator, public health advocate, writer, and cook. She completed her master’s in Public Health and her PhD in Health Behavior Research at the University of Southern California. She was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to teach Public Health Nutrition in Italy, and now lives in Market Harborough in the UK, where she works as a writer, recipe developer, and mother to two young boys.