Unfortunately, the answer to the question in the title of this article is almost certainly, "Yes."
The CDC released a report in February with a nice summary of how much added sugar children and adolescents consume. It is not surprising that the answer is "more than they should." But it may disturb you to learn how much more than they should. Teenage boys are consuming over half a cup of added sugar a day. Toddlers are being provided twice the added sugar that their parents are meant to limit themselves to.
First, a definition: "added sugar" means sugars added to food. The term is explictly meant to exclude the sugars naturally found in fruit and milk. We nutritionists like these foods because they are nutritionally dense. We are not worried about "sugar" per se -- rather we worry about "added sugars." "Added sugars" are what you get when you drink soda or eat candy. "Added sugars" include table sugar, but also cane syrup, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, molasses, rice syrup, fructose, dextrose, maltose, and many more. Nutritionally, there are minor differences. But for the most part, they simply add sugar to foods. The couple of grams of added sugar you might find in bread are not a big deal. The 40+ grams of added sugar in a 12 ounce can of soda isn't a good idea.
The CDC report shows that children from 2 - 5 years old are consuming twice as much added sugar as the recommended limit for adults. That is, 2 - 5 year olds average about 50 grams of added sugars per day. The recommended limit for adults is about 25 - 35 grams per day(1). Since this is the age that parents have the most influence over what their children consume it is a prime opportunity to be careful about what you train them to like.
An earlier study(2) showed that the major source of added sugars for all children and adolescents is sugary drinks. Soda and fruit drinks contribute about 45% of added sugar intake. Therefore, this is the area where we can focus most on cutting back.
The next biggest source of added sugars for children and adolescents is grain based desserts(*), followed by ice cream and similar desserts, candy, then cold cereals. These are all foods where we need to do a better job of teaching children that these are treats and not everyday foods.
When kids get older, their energy needs increase. But the CDC report illustrates that their sugar intake grows even faster. The 2-5 year old group, who we already know are getting too much sugar, get about 13% of their calories from added sugar. Teens get about 17% of their total calories from added sugar. Teenage boys are the worst offenders averaging 110 grams of added sugar per day. That's more than half a cup of added sugar per day. Average teen consumption of soda is about 12 ounces every day(2).
So, what can we do?
- Start early. The American Association of Pediatrics suggests delaying introducing fruit juice until at least six months old and to limit consumption to 6 ounces a day from 6 months to 6 years old(3). When you do introduce juice, water it down to at least 50% water to mitigate developing a taste for sweet.
- Continue to water juice down not only for your children, but also for your own benefit. And stick with juice -- avoid introducing soda and soft drinks for as long as possible.
- For all age groups aim to reduce sweetened desserts by half. When children want something sweet, encourage fruit first.
- Most importantly - be a good role model. Children learn most of their eating habits from their parents. Yes, cake and cookies are delicious. But if we show our children that these are everyday foods, they have no reason not to follow suit.
We don't need to eliminate sweetened foods. But they really need to regain their position as "treats" not everyday foods. Is aiming for half the soda consumption and half the sweetened dessert consumption asking too much?
* Grain based desserts include cake, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars.
Eric Esterling is a registered dietitian (RD) with a Masters in Nutrition and admits that he too consumes too much sugar -- but not that much.
1. Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, Howard BV, Lefevre M, Lustig RH, et al. Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation. 2009 Sep;120(11):1011-1020.
2. Reedy J, Krebs-Smith SM. Dietary Sources of Energy, Solid Fats, and Added Sugars among Children and Adolescents in the United States. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2010 Oct;110:1477-1484.
3. The Use and Misuse of Fruit Juice in Pediatrics. Pediatrics. 2001 May;107(5):1210-1213.