American toddlers are eating more sugar than the maximum amount recommended for adults

Another option.
Another option.
Image: REUTERS / Joe Skipper
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We’ve long known that processed sugar is bad for kids. And yet new data presented this week (June 10) at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting show that American infants are consuming excessive amounts of added sugar in their diets, much more than the amounts currently recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) and other medical organizations.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at added sugar consumption—sugars in your diet that are not naturally occurring, like those found in fruit and milk, but rather added into foods during preparation or processing. Researchers used data collected from a nationally representative sample of more than 800 kids between six and 23 months old who participated in the 2011 to 2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Parents were asked to record every item their child ate or drank during a 24-hour period, and the researchers calculated a mean sugar intake based on these testimonies.

The study found that toddlers 12 to 18 months consumed 5.5 teaspoons per day, and that toddlers 19 to 23 months consumed 7.1 teaspoons. This is close to, or more than, the amount of sugar recommended by AHA for adult women (six teaspoons) and men (nine teaspoons). Parents of more than 80% of kids aged six to 23 months reported their children consumed at least some added sugar on a given day.

This tracks (pdf) with an increase in US sugar intake broadly: In 1970, Americans ate 123 pounds of sugar per year, and today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar per year.

Why is sugar especially bad for kids under two?

Sugar can affect our health at multiple stages in our development. Too much sugar during pregnancy adversely impacts child cognition, while excess sugar intake during adolescence has been associated with weight gain and cardiac risks, which include an increased risk of obesity and elevated blood pressure. Recent studies have also shown that excess sugar depresses the body’s immunity, making kids more vulnerable to diseases and infections.

But the earlier sugar intake begins, the harder the habit becomes to kick later in life. A promising strategy for reducing kids’ sugar intake is to get them used to healthy eating before they turn two. AHA’s guidelines state that kids of this age “should avoid consuming any added sugar, since they need nutrient-rich diets and are developing taste preferences.”  That’s perhaps why, unlike the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the 2020-2025 edition will include dietary recommendations for infants and toddlers under two.

What can parents do to reduce their kids’ sugar intake?

The 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that sweetened beverages are the major source of added sugars in typical US diets—in fact, they account for 47% of all added sugars consumed by Americans. So, parents might want to consider cutting soft drinks, fruit drinks, and flavored waters out of their toddlers’ diets, in addition to snacks and sweets, the second major source of added sugars.

The AHA recommends reading ingredients’ nutritional labels carefully, since “sugar has many other names.” “Besides those ending in ‘ose,’ such as maltose or sucrose,” the guidelines say, “other names for sugar include high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrates.”

Generally speaking, parents looking for ways to raise healthy children should look to their infants’ first years of life as a blank canvas from which healthy lifestyle patterns, including sugar-free diets, can be developed and sustained through adulthood.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.