Common Sources of Sugar in Kids’ Diets (Part 1)
Added sugar is dangerous for our kids. It can make them less intelligent and affects their behavior. It affects their health and is implicated in diseases as diverse as obesity and heart disease. It’s addictive, so it’s not an easy habit to break. If you are like me and want to help your kids avoid sugar and its many pitfalls and health dangers, you need to know what foods to avoid feeding your kids. What are some of the most common sources of sugar in kids’ diets?
It’s not the occasional candy or dessert that are the dangers to our kids. It is easy to vilify these sweet treats because they stand out in our minds as being very sweet. Some kids do eat a lot of sweets and obviously it is good to avoid candies, cakes, and cookies as much as possible (unless you make a healthy version, of course!). If your kids are eating lots of these things, start by reducing and eventually eliminating them.
But with the average child under age 12 eating 49 pounds of sugar per year (that’s over 22 kg!)*, it’s not just candies and cakes that our doing our kids in. The average 1-3 year old is eating 12 teaspoons of sugar per day, which is an insane amount for a body so small. Hopefully our toddlers are not regularly eating candies! So where is this huge amount of sugar coming from?
Problem: Soft Drinks & Juices
One of the biggest culprits in our children’s diets is soft drinks. Whether it’s soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks, or even vitamin water, it’s loaded with sugar.[i] In fact, sugary soft drinks are the largest source of added sugar in the average American child’s diet.[ii] Americans on average consume nearly twice as much soda as people in any other country.[iii] Nearly half of us drink soda every single day, and of those of us who do, we drink more than 2 glasses per day.[iv] And among our children the percentage is even higher – nearly 60% of American high school students are drinking soda or another sugary soft drink every single day.[v]
And even if we don’t give our child soda, we’re still giving them sugar. We think we’re doing the right thing by giving them “healthy” vitamin water, but it’s full of sugar, too. Iced tea (unless it’s homemade) is also full of sugar.
Even fruit juice is full of sugar. Many fruit drinks only contain a small percentage of fruit juice. And often, even if a juice advertises itself as 100% juice, it’s still got added sugar, just in the form of concentrated juice added to it.
Try this experiment: Get some oranges and squeeze them into a glass. Now fill a second glass with the packaged orange juice you usually give your kids. You’ll notice that the freshly squeezed juice is thinner and less opaque. If you taste it, it won’t seem as sweet. That’s because it’s not as concentrated as the kind you buy in the store. So you see, even 100% fruit juice is not necessarily healthy.
Solution: Water, Iced Tea, & Fresh Juice
The solution to this problem is easy: Replace all soft drinks with bottled water, home-brewed teas (white tea, green tea, and herbal teas are all great options), or fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Juicing fruit and vegetables fresh at home can be a big effort for time-crushed parents, but if you use a masticating (cold-press) slow juicer you can do all your juicing for the week in one go on the weekend. And if your child has a specific health issue you’re working to overcome, such as liver problems caused by an unhealthy diet, juicing can be a great way to detox. Buy a re-usable plastic juice box and send it to school with your child full of fresh, homemade juice and you’ll cut the added sugar from their diet and give a boost to the amount of vitamins and minerals they’re consuming.
Another big sugar culprit is the granola bar. I remember loving granola bars as a kid, especially the ones with chocolate chips in them! I also remember trying to trade food with my friends to get my hands on their “Nature’s Valley” granola bars. I didn’t want them because they were healthy. I wanted them because they were sweet! Almost any granola bar or energy bar is high in sugar. You think you are giving your child a healthy snack, but you’re really giving them a dose of sugar.
Many snacks kids take to school have this same problem. Applesauce is often full of added sugar, as are fruit cups. Fruit snacks and fruit roll-ups are also really high in sugar. You may think you’re giving your child a healthy snack, but you’re really just giving them a dose of sugar.
Even a snack like cheese and cracks is fraught with dangers of the sugary kind. Firstly, cheese is high in fat, especially if it’s highly processed like Cheez-Whiz is. It might come as not surprise that a snack like Ritz crackers are not so healthy, what with their white flour, sugar, butter, and salt content. But what about healthy crackers like Wheat Thins? Did you know Wheat Thins contain not one but three different types of sugar in their ingredients list? And that’s not even considering how much fat and salt they contain. Most pretzels are no better. They are usually made with white flour and covered in lots of salt. Most are low in added sugar, but still, beware!
A lot of parents also give their kids snacks like muffins or other pastries. On so many occasions, I have seen kids at the playground eating muffins that contain more sugar than my entire family eats in a day. The same is true of other common baked goods. (Bread-based pastries like bagels and English muffins should be considered bread goods – come back tomorrow to see my treatment of breads.) Did you know that one Sara Lee blueberry muffin contains 32 grams of sugar?! That’s almost as much as their double chocolate chunk muffins, which contain 39 grams of sugar. Even one bran muffin (which you would think should be healthy) contains 24 grams of sugar!
Solution: Homemade Snacks, Fresh Fruit, & Healthy Crackers
Bake your own healthy granola bars using whole grain rolled oats, nuts (if your school allows), seeds (we love chia and sesame seeds), and dried fruit. Sweeten them with mashed banana and (if absolutely necessary as you wean your child off sweet tastes) agave nectar or honey. (Forgive me, but I have a minor obsession with raw organic agave nectar!) Busy parents: Get your kids involved in making them! This is a great after-school or weekend activity and can really help inspire healthy kids. Plus, you can always bake a huge batch and freeze them because homemade granola bars keep really well in the freezer and you can pull one out per day for lunches. Because you make them yourself, they are customizable, too – omit ingredients your kids dislike and include things your kids need – for example, add protein powder to turn them into protein bars for kids who do a lot of sports and exercise! (Also, I have an amazing recipe I will share with you all soon, so please stay posted!)
You can also make your own muffins and pastries with no sweeteners at all. Sweeten muffins using fresh fruit, like mashed bananas, or make savory muffins with shredded or pureed vegetables like zucchini, pumpkin, sweet potato, or carrots. I have a recipe for you that I’ll share soon!
As far as other snacks go, fresh fruit is always a classic. Send a whole fruit or cut it up. Buy healthier crackers (Mary’s Gone Crackers Original Organic Crackers are my favorite! And they come in a variety of flavors.), even if that means starting to read ingredients lists and labels. You can also purchase dried fruits, which most kids love, or even Freeze Dried Fruit, which is crispy and nutritious. There are also a lot of fruit leather brands out there now that are 100% fruit. You can also make your own fruit leather (think of it as a healthy fruit roll-up) by pureeing fruit and then dehydrating it on a tray in your oven or dehydrator.
To Be Continued…
There is more to come, so come back tomorrow to see the second half of this list. There is a lot of hidden sugar in food, and the sad thing is that is hiding in the foods we least expect. But with dedication we can uncover a lot of these sources and remove them from our kids’ diets, replacing them with healthy alternatives.
*USDA Economic Research Service
[i] Malik VS, Popkin BM, et al. Sugar-sweetened beverages, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease risk. Circulation. 2010;121:1356-64
[ii] 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 Association2010;110(10):1477–1484.
[iii] Euromonitor Global Market Information Database, available at http://www.euromonitor.com/.
[iv] Gallup’s Consumption Habits poll, July 2012, available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/156116/Nearly-Half-Americans-Drink-Soda-Daily.aspx?utm_source=google&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syndication.
[v] United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Beverage Consumption Among High School Students—United States, 2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).