Toddlers in America are consuming an average of over seven teaspoons of added sugar per day — more than the recommended amount of six teaspoons for adult women.
This finding came from a data analysis of 800 children ages 6 to 23 months who participated in a nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey research study between 2011 and 2014.
“When we looked at infants between the ages of 6 to 23 months, 85 percent of the infants and toddlers were consuming added sugar on a given day,” Kirsten Herrick, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and lead author of the study, told Healthline.
And as the toddlers aged, more of them consumed added sugars. Between 19 and 23 months, 99 percent of children in the study had consumed an average of over seven teaspoons on a given day.
All this added sugar can add up to health problems later on in life — or, in some cases, earlier in life.
“Kids are growing and they do need calories, but the calories in sugar aren’t actually giving them any nutrition — it’s just added calories,” explained Jessica Cording, MS, RN, CDN, a registered dietitian in New York City.
“Consumption of added sugars is associated with excess weight gain and obesity,” said Dr. Jennifer Woo Baidal, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and director of pediatric weight management in the division of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told Healthline. “And that can lead to hypertension, dyslipidemia, fatty liver disease and diabetes.”
The Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t currently issue guidelines for children under 2 years old in its Dietary Guidelines For Americans (DGA), which are published every five years.
However, thanks to 2014 legislation, DGA will begin issuing dietary guidelines for pregnant women and children under age 2 beginning with its 2020 to 2025 recommendations.
Setting them up for problems down the line
While a little sugar here or there might not seem like a big deal, the problem is that very few of us stop at just a little. In fact, our brains are hardwired to love the sweet stuff.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with pleasure and it becomes activated when we anticipate a sugary treat — in other words, cravings. “Sweet foods trigger the brain’s reward system,” explained Woo Baidal.
As with addictive substances such as cocaine, the brain’s reward center becomes accustomed to the dopamine “high” we get from satisfying this craving — and requires more and more each time going forward in order to attain the same good feeling.
In a 2016 Healthline survey, 45 percent of respondents said they were surprised to learn that sugar is as addictive as illicit drugs. Unlike cocaine, however, added sugars are inexpensive — and everywhere.
A top culprit for sugar overload? Sugar-sweetened beverages, particularly juices.
Fruit juices might seem healthy because they have the word “fruit” in the name and they taste like fruit. However, unlike when eating a piece of fruit, “you don’t get any of the fiber in there that’s going to digest [the sugar],” Cording explained. “So, a kid drinking juice, it’s kind of hitting the bloodstream with load of sugar water.”
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that children under 12 months shouldn’t drink fruit juice. Toddlers up to age 3 could have up to four ounces of fruit juice per day.
“Parents might think that they’re giving their kid 100 percent juice,” explained Woo Baidal. “But actually, they’re giving them a juice drink or fruit drink or some other drink that has added sugar in it.”
In fact, some juices contain more added sugars than soft drinks.
These experts aren’t alone in their worries. In fact, a 2017 report published by through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called sugar-sweetened drinks a “public health concern.”
Authors of the report pointed out that “prospective studies have documented that (sugar-sweetened beverages or SSB) intake in infancy predicted obesity at 6 years, and that infant feeding practices, including not breastfeeding versus breastfeeding for at least 12 months and SSB intake, were associated with obesity during toddlerhood.”
Of course, in addition to health concerns, there’s a practical reason for parents of young children to monitor added sugars as well: the dreaded sugar rush.
“When someone eats a lot of sugar, their blood sugar is kind of all over the charts,” explained Cording. “That’s when you see the energy spike and the dip and [kids] get cranky and they have those meltdowns.”
Products marketed towards kids contain sugar
Other seemingly innocuous foods enjoyed by kids can be secret sources of added sugar.
“I often see people buying low-fat yogurt for their children and [they] think that because it’s low-fat, it’s healthy,” explained Cording. “Then you check out the label and you’re like, ‘Holy crap, there’s many teaspoons of sugar in that yogurt’ — often beyond that 25 grams.”
Greek yogurt can be a better bet for yogurt lovers since it’s usually made without so much added sugar.
Condiments are another place where added sugars can sneak in.
Barbecue sauce and ketchup are condiments that parents should use sparingly. “Ketchup comes up a lot for kids because they want to eat chicken nuggets and their parents are giving them ketchup with it,” Cording explained. However, “there’s so much sugar in there.”
Cording added that snack bars or granola bars, as well as other cereals, are kid-friendly products where added sugars can be found. She also warned parents not to immediately turn to natural sweeteners, such as coconut sugar or brown rice syrup.
“Even these more natural sweeteners still have a similar effect in the body to the table sugar,” Cording told Healthline. “Sometimes I’ll see parents fall prey to the whole ‘health halo’ effect of products that are sweetened with these more natural-sounding things — but biochemically speaking, it’s the same thing happening [to you].”
Truly, parents have their work cut out for them shopping for kids’ foods that are low in added sugars — and the processed food industry doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
“The food environment here in the United States is really laden with products that contain added sugar, even many products that are marketed towards infants and toddlers,” said Woo Baidel. “In fact, millions and millions of dollars go towards advertising for products with added sugar that are labeled as infant and toddler products.”
She added, “It’s really important that parents understand that not every food or drink out there that has a picture of an infant or a toddler on it is necessarily a healthy food or drink for their baby.”
Eventually babies will learn to love healthy food
The temptation of sugar may be everywhere, but caregivers are still in a powerful position of introducing kids to more nutritious foods early on. Simply put, the more whole foods that children start enjoying while younger, the better.
The CDC provides detailed information on what age babies should be introduced to “complementary foods” — that is, foods other than breast milk or formula — and which foods and beverages to consume. Being mindful of the added sugars in many juices, water is a good drink to start with.
“Sometime between 6 to 12 months — around the time of solid food introduction — parents could start giving 4 to 6 ounces of water per day to their baby to help them learn to enjoy the taste of plain water,” Woo Baidal told Healthline.
Children over 1 year old need a “diet rich in real foods, such as fresh vegetables, fruits, lean protein and dairy, and some whole grains,” she continued.
Eating whole foods may not be possible all the time, and packaged foods can be purchased everywhere these days. Nevertheless, Woo Baidal encouraged parents to read the ingredients list on their grocery purchases to hunt for added sugars, which might be listed as high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, molasses or agave syrup.
Woo Baidal also cautioned parents against getting “disheartened” if toddlers are fussy and resistant to trying new foods and urged them to keep trying.
“[Parents should expect that infants aren’t going to accept a food that’s not high in sugar the first time around and they should be patient that it might take a few tries, but eventually babies will learn to love healthy food,” she said.
Cording echoed the sentiment that parents shouldn’t give up because hopefully it will pay off later.
“Behaviorally, when they’re so young, their taste buds, their flavor perception [and] their relationships with food, it’s all just beginning,” she said. “When you’re conditioning them right out of the gate to crave really sweet food, that’s setting them up for problems down the line.”