Like lots of mothers, I watched Jamie’s Oliver’s recent C4 documentary ‘Sugar Rush’, with my jaw wide open. It’s difficult to comprehend just how much damage sugar is doing to our children, and worse still, just how much sugar is hidden in our every day foods. I’m a healthy person and my children eat well, but from watching Sugar Rush, I realise there’s so much I’m unaware of. We asked Kawther Hashem, one of the team behind the popular documentary to give us the low-down on what free sugars actually are, where they come from, how much we should give our children, and what steps we can take to help limit sugar in our children’s diet. I hope this article is helpful.
Children’s health and free sugars
Kids in the UK are still eating far too much free sugars in their diet. Intakes are highest in children aged 4 to 10 years and children aged 11 to 18 years (14.7% and 15.4% of total dietary energy intake respectively).
Just what are free sugars?
Free sugars includes sugars that are added to food, as well as sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates, not sugars in milk products and whole fruit & vegetables.
What’s the problem?
Free sugars means empty calories (no nutrients beyond calories) that put kids at risk of obesity and related-health problems that can show up as early as adolescence such as pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes, plus damaging their teeth.
So how much free sugars can we give children?
A recent government report recommended that no more than 5% of our calorie intake should come from free sugars. The previous recommendation was 10%.
The new advice says children consume no more than 19g for children aged four to six (around the amount of sugar in a pouch of Capri Sun) and no more than 24g for children aged seven to 10 (around the amount of sugar in a Mars bar).
The government now advises everyone, adults and children to minimise the amount of sugars-sweetened drinks they drink.
Where are they all coming from?
The main sources of free sugars are sugar-sweetened drinks, cereal, chocolate, sweets, fruit juice and added sugar at the table.
So what can parents do to take the sugar out of their child’s diet?
Parents everywhere believe a carton of fruit juice is a healthy choice because it claims to contain real fruit juice and no artificial colours. However, some fruit juices have just six per cent fruit juice. A 330ml bottle has eight teaspoons of sugar. That’s almost as much as a can of cola, and more than the daily recommended free sugars intake of a five-year-old.
Action on Sugar found many children’s juices contain at least six teaspoons of sugar and come in cartons larger than recommended. Current UK guidelines state that a small (150ml) glass of unsweetened 100% fruit juice can count as one of your ‘5 a Day’ (15). Only six products are actually sold in 150ml portion size packaging, which is of no help to parents trying to make a healthy choice for their children. Other juice drinks, such as squash and sweetened juice, do not.
Juice should be an occasional treat, not an ‘everyday’ drink. Plain water or plain milk is a much better alternative. Milk has the added benefit of adding calcium and protein to your child’s diet. For difficult children that insist on having fruit juice, opt for diluting the juice gradually to adjust their habit. Only give them to children during meals, as well as limiting portions to a small glass, 150ml, a day or much better – drink water and eat whole fruit and vegetables.
Many parents believe the calcium and fruit in yogurt is a winning combination, but it’s also one that comes with a lot of sugar. Petits Filous Strawberry & Raspberry Fromage Frais contains 10.1g sugars per 100g serving and Muller Corner Kids Hearts Yogurt contains 23.3.8g sugars per 135g serving.
You might assume Nestle’s Munch Bunch Double Up Fromage Frais would contain less sugar as it’s targeted at kids, but the difference is negligible. Each small 85g pot has 11.4 grams of sugars and sadly very little fruit (2.5%).
Try putting fresh fruit pieces in plain Greek/low fat yogurt instead. There are plenty of fruits that are naturally sweet, and you can ensure your child gets natural fibre and vitamins at the same time.
Cereal bars are another common with a healthy reputation, but these snack foods are also packed full of free sugars. In fact, when Which? analysed 30 of the popular snacks it found all but one contained more than 30 per cent free sugars. Many were also high in fat, including saturated fat.
Many of the worst culprits are the ones targeted at children. Kellogg’s Frosties Cereal & Milk Bar is almost one-third free sugars. However there are some products available with less free sugars, fat and salt. Check the labels and choose the products with lower sugar content. However, fresh fruit is always a safer bet – or for something more substantial try low salt crackers, oatcakes or a banana.
It may seem a challenge to find the right foods for your child to eat. The truth is that it does take a bit of planning and education, but it is certainly not impossible. And the longer you wait with introducing foods and drinks high in free sugars content in your child’s diet, the better the chances of them being healthier children and their teeth growing healthy and strong. Their teeth are more sensitive than ours, so it’s worth extra care in choosing what passes by them. Get them used to healthier food from the get go, and consider what you eat in front of them as well – setting a good example, and turning eating well into a fun thing, will make things a lot easier.
Top tips for the whole family
- Remove sugar (white and brown), syrup, honey and molasses from the breakfast table ”” out of sight, out of mind!
- Cut back on the amount of sugar added to things you eat or drink regularly like cereal, pancake, coffee or tea. Try cutting the usual amount of sugar you add by half and wean down from there.
- Instead of adding sugar to cereal or oatmeal, add fresh fruit (try bananas, cherries or strawberries).
- Instead of having sweetened yoghurt, have plain yoghurt and add fresh fruit.
- When baking cookies, brownies or cakes, cut the sugar in your recipe by one-third to one-half. Often you won’t notice the difference.
- Instead of adding sugar in recipes, use extracts such as almond, vanilla, orange or lemon.
- Enhance foods with spices instead of sugar; try ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg.
- Dilute fruit juice with water gradually to adjust their habit
- Dilute carbonated sugars-sweetened carbonated drinks with sparkling water gradually to adjust their habit
- Use FoodSwitch UK an award-winning free smartphone app, to help you find food and drink products with less free sugars.
Kawther Hashem MSc RNutr (Public Health)
Nutritionist and Researcher
Action on Sugar