Sneaky Sources of Sugar in Kids' Diets

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Research shows added sugar in diet can be linked to health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, and fatty liver disease.

Parents: Fire up your measuring spoons. The American Heart Association has updated its guidelines for the amount of added sugar children should consume each day. The new limit: no more than six teaspoons. The recommendation, based on research recently published in the journal Circulation, applies to kids between the ages of 2 and 18.

Note the guidelines refer to added sugar — the white stuff you spoon onto cereal, for example, and sweeteners like honey, molasses, and high-fructose corn syrup listed on ingredients labels — not the natural sugars in foods like fruits and milk. Research shows added sugar in diet can be linked to health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, and fatty liver disease.

Six teaspoons, or about 25 grams, “can add up pretty quick,” warns Mandy Kendall, R.D., a dietitian at Indiana University Health. “For example, a packet of flavored oatmeal has around 13 grams of added sugar. A granola bar contains about the same. Consuming just those two things will put a child over the limit for the day.”

In fact, there are lots of ways added sugar sneaks into foods, says Kendall. “In 2018, food labels will be required to reflect how much of the total sugar in a food is natural and how much is added. For now, though, limiting sugar in a kid’s diet will require careful label reading.”

It also helps to have an idea of some of the sources of added sugar in favorite kid foods. Kendall offers up this list of the most common ones.

Beverages. Sports drinks, soda, and fruit-flavored drinks are the number one source of added sugar in kids’ diets. “Even hundred percent fruit juice is a less desirable option than a whole piece of fruit,” adds Kendall. “ There’s no sugar added, so it won’t count toward the six gram limit, but it won’t be as filling or offer the same amount of fiber and nutrients.”

Flavored milk. A cup of plain milk actually has about 13 grams of natural sugar, says Kendall. Make it chocolate, though, and you’re stirring in about 13 more grams of added sugar.

Sweetened cereal. Not surprisingly, this can be a pretty big one. If the first ingredient is sugar, that’s a problem, says Kendall. For example, a cup of fruit-flavored O-shaped cereal can have as many as three teaspoons of added sugar. “That’s already half of the entire day’s allotments,” she points out.

Yogurt. Flavored ones are often swimming in added sugar. Read the label: If the second ingredient is an added sweetener, leave that carton on the shelf and reach for plain Greek yogurt and some fresh fruit to mix into it.

Dried fruit. Some dried fruit, such as raisins, come by their sweetness naturally and so don’t count toward the added-sugar allotment. “But often sugar is added to dried fruit — especially something like cranberries, which need the sugar to counter the tartness,” explains Kendall. “Again, read the label. The same goes for snacks like fruit leather.

Jellies. These often are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or other forms of added sugar, says Kendall. The better alternative: a 100-percent fruit spread. It may have some fillers to hold the pureed fruit together, but these are safe to eat and don’t add sugar.

Sauces and condiments. Ketchup and barbecue sauce can be sinister sources of sugar. There’s typically a teaspoon of added sugar in a tablespoon of ketchup, and at least two teaspoons of added sugar in barbecue sauce.

Granola and granola bars. These healthy-sounding foods usually are packed with some good-for-kids ingredients (oatmeal, nuts, seeds, etc.). But what holds them all together is always added sugar in some form — honey, molasses, maple syrup. Again — read labels and serve these up sparingly. 

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