Changes in food processing over the past 30 years, particularly the addition of sugar to a wide variety of foods, has created an environment in which our foods are essentially addictive. This plays a large role in steering our children towards high body fat. The popular Western diet, full of sugary, high-GI, energy-dense, low-fibre foods, appears to be a major contributor to the increasing obesity epidemic.
Sugar is a hidden ingredient in many commercially prepared foods. Refined sugars such as sucrose (table sugar), glucose, dextrose (corn sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup are added during processing, to increase foods palatability and sometimes to add bulk.
Foods to watch out for
Foods commonly known to contain large amounts of added sugars include soft drinks, jams, cordials, ice cream, chocolate, lollies, frozen desserts, pastries, biscuits, breakfast cereals, muesli bars and cakes.
Added sugar also turns up in foods you may not expect, like salad dressings, tomato sauce, mayonnaise, peanut butter, savoury biscuits, bread, canned foods (baked beans, fruit), yoghurts and fruit juices. It can be quite surprising when you add up how much sugar your child consumes in a day, when one serving of tomato sauce can contain one teaspoon of sugar, one serving of baked beans can contain two teaspoons and one small tub of sweetened yoghurt can contain up to four teaspoons of sugar. An average 30g serving of a sugary breakfast cereal such as coco puffs or fruit loops, made up of 40 percent sugar, equals around three teaspoons of sugar sprinkled on your children's breakfast.
Results from a recent nutritional survey found that between 20 and 30 percent of Australian children eat confectionery at least four times a week, and around 10 percent of kids eat confectionery daily.1
Foods that are high in refined sugars are energy-dense foods that are usually lacking in vital nutrients. It's a concern that these energy-dense sugary foods are replacing more nutritious foods in the average child's diet, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. These sugary foods are also often notoriously high in saturated and trans-fats and lacking in dietary fibre. Foods that are rich in refined sugars and low in fibre also fail to create a feeling of satiety (fullness), resulting in a tendency to over-eat.
When children consume sugar-rich foods they get an artificial high, rapidly raising the levels of sugar and adrenaline in their bloodstream. This can contribute to hyperactivity, anxiety, and difficulties concentrating.
This rapid rise in blood sugar levels stimulates the release of too much insulin, which causes children's blood sugar levels to plummet, resulting in irritability and crankiness. High consumption of sugar has been associated with exacerbating children's behavioural problems and ADHD symptoms and can effect a child's learning ability.2,3 The regular consumption of these foods can lead to children becoming overweight or obese, which is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.
Children consuming diets rich in sugary foods are at increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis later in life.4,5 Excessive sugar can raise blood triglyceride levels (blood fats), reduce HDL 'good' cholesterol and raise LDL 'bad' cholesterol.6,7,8
Excessive sugar consumption has a suppressive effect on the immune system, suppressing the ability of white blood cells to function. Sugar competes with vitamin C uptake into immune cells, leaving children vulnerable to infections and viruses.9,10 Large amounts of sugar in the diet can also interfere with the absorption of calcium, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.11,12 High consumption of sugar and refined foods can increase the excretion of zinc out of the body, which could lead to a deficiency. Frequent consumption of sugary foods and beverages is one of the leading causes of tooth decay in children.
How to read ingredient and nutrition panels
To reduce sugars in your child's diet it is important to know how to interpret ingredient and nutrition panels, and be able to distinguish between total sugars and added sugars on processed or packaged foods.
In Australia food labeling laws require manufacturers to list all ingredients from greatest to smallest proportion. However there may not be a nutrition panel included on packaging as it's not mandatory.
Nutrition panels give a break down of nutrients, carbohydrates, protein, fats, total sugars as well as some vitamins and minerals.
Most nutrition panels found on Australian products list only the total amount of sugar in the product, listed as "total sugars" or "sugars". This total sugars value includes added, refined sugars and naturally occurring sugars from fruit and milk components. It is important to be able to distinguish between total and added sugars in a product. For example, plain yoghurt has a total sugar value of 7.04g/100g due to the presence of lactose (milk sugar), but no added sugars. Sweetened fruit yoghurt has a total sugar value of 19g/100g and an added sugar value of 11.4g/100g due to sugar being added. Freshly squeezed orange juice has a total sugar value of 8.4g/100g due to its fructose content but has no added sugars. Low-fat milk has a total sugar value of 5.06g/100g due to its lactose content but it contains no added sugars.
Most processed or packaged foods have sugars present, in some form, from fruit, milk or honey. However it is the added, refined sugars that we must look out for and limit in children's diets. If a product has a high total sugar value and does not contain fruit or milk in the ingredients, it is likely to be high in added, refined sugars.
Added sugar is not always listed as sugar on the ingredient panel. Look for it in the guise of alternatives such as sucrose, glucose, sorbitol, mannitol, corn syrup, malt, malt extract, maltose, rice extract, molasses, honey and golden syrup.
If there is no nutrition panel on the package and sugar is listed in the top three ingredients on the ingredient panel, this food is more than likely high in added sugars. Be careful of so called healthy muesli bars that appear to be a nutritious snack as some can actually contain up to four different types of sugar.
Look out for trick marketing to try and make products sound more appealing, with words such as healthy, nutritious, good, natural, pure, fresh, low-GI, light or low-fat. This doesn't mean that the product is healthy and could possibly be very high in added sugars. For example, it is common to see packets of lollies with "99 percent fat-free" splashed across the label. Manufacturers will promote the benefits of the product, such as added vitamins and minerals, to draw attention away from the fact that the product is full of added sugar, fat and sodium. Don't be fooled, read ingredient labels carefully. Terms such as healthy and nutritious aren't defined by law so they can legally be applied to pretty much any product.
Helpful ways to reduce your child's sugar intake
- Get creative and make healthy versions of your kid's favourite sweet foods. Fruits such as berries and bananas are an ideal way to sweeten cakes, muffins, sauces and smoothies.
- Instead of giving your child sweet snacks that are high in added sugar and low in nutrients, offer them healthier naturally sweet foods, such as fruit, small amounts of sun-dried fruit and fruit yoghurts.
- Replace sugary, sweet biscuits with savoury crackers and rice cakes spread with healthy savoury dips or toppings.
- Choose whole oats, natural mueslis, puffed cereals (rice, millet, buckwheat) and other wholegrains for breakfast instead of sugary breakfast cereals. Watch out for some toasted mueslis that are high in added sugars (make your own toasted with a little honey).
- Watch out for so called health bars and breakfast bars in your supermarket often marketed as healthy snacks or 'breakfast on the run'. They may contain healthy elements such as muesli, nuts, seeds and dried fruit but they also contain a lot of sugar and saturated fats. You are best-off making your own muesli bars and biscuits for your kids to take to school and for after-school snacks.
- Avoid giving soft drinks to your kids. Instead mix 100 percent fruit juice with some natural mineral water.
- Avoid using cordials as they are a concentrated form of sugar. Use 100 percent fruit juice as cordial, diluted with water. Diluted pineapple, apple and tropical juices make healthier substitutes.
- Keep lollies and chocolates for special occasions such as birthday parties.
By Lisa Guy
Naturopath and nutritionist
Art of Healing