New research presented this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that many American toddlers are eating more added sugar than is recommended for adult women.
The study looked at 800 children aged between six months and two years old, and found that 85 per cent of them were consuming added sugars on any given day. Nearly all toddlers between 12 and 23 months old were eating added sugar on a daily basis.
Toddlers between 19 and 23 months old, were consuming on average about seven teaspoons of added sugar per day — more than the six teaspoon limit recommended by the American Heart Association for adult women. Children under two shouldn’t eat or drink any added sugar.
The study was based on a survey where parents recalled what they had fed their children, so it’s not perfect data — it’s hard for people to remember exactly what they ate or prepared on a given day — but CDC researchers guided people through a detailed interview process to help cut down on mistakes.
In this study, the researchers only looked at added sugars, not those that are naturally present, like the sugars in an apple for example.
“The concern with these sugars is they’re really empty calories,” said study author Kirsten Herrick, a nutritional epidemiologist at the CDC.
“They have lots of energy in them but not all of the vitamins and minerals or fibre that you’d want to go along with that energy.”
Eating too much sugar can contribute to cavities, and according to some research on older children, even contribute to risk factors for cardiovascular disease or change the child’s taste preferences, she said.
WATCH: Canadian study finds added sugar in ‘healthier’ packaged snacks, baby food
And it’s not just Americans. Registered dietitian Rosanne Robinson, who runs Blueprint Nutrition in Waterloo, looked at data for slightly older Canadian children.
“When I looked at how much added sugar they’re consuming on average at each of their meals and snacks, it was staggering,” said Robinson.
But where is all that added sugar coming from? Here are some of the major culprits.
Sweetened fruit juices are the biggest source of added sugar for toddlers, said Herrick, who pointed to previous research in the area. They accounted for 23 per cent of added sugar intake alone.
Robinson isn’t even a big fan of 100 per cent fruit juice when it comes to sugar. Although that’s natural sugar.
“When you squeeze an orange, you’re just getting the juice,” added Robinson. “You’re not getting the fibre and the pulp and everything else that you’re left holding in your hand. You’re just getting the sugar.”
Packaged cookies and snacks
Some kinds of cookies, like arrowroot biscuits, are increasingly being marketed to young toddlers, said Robinson. And they have lots of added sugar.
“They’re marketed towards babies but they’re just full of white flour and added sugar. But they have this baby label on it.”
Even if the cookies are labelled “organic,” that doesn’t mean they’re healthy, Robinson said. The same goes for “snack puffs” — small, convenient finger foods that dissolve on a baby’s tongue. “There’s a lot of baby food puffs and they can have a bit of added sugar,” she said.
And while most parents she sees at her practice tend to plan out their child’s meals fairly well, snack time often means easy, pre-packaged items.
Cookies and cakes represented about 15 per cent of the added sugar that toddlers were consuming in the study Herrick referenced.
Yogurt and breakfast cereal
Many children’s breakfast cereals are full of sugar, said Robinson, and yogurt can be too.
Interestingly, most baby foods don’t contain added sugar, she said, although she has a different complaint about the ubiquitous, squeezable baby food pouches on sale at supermarkets: “It’s just applesauce.”
Applesauce is often the first ingredient in many of these foods, she said, and it would be much cheaper to just buy a big jar of sauce than individual pouches.
WATCH: All sugar affects your body the same way, despite the myth that certain types of sugars are better than others for your health.
Both Herrick and Robinson suggest fresh fruits and vegetables as an alternative to products that contain added sugar.
“When it comes down to it, it’s not rocket science, choosing fresh fruits and vegetables, plain white milk instead of chocolate milk. Plain yogurt and sweetening it with strawberries or applesauce,” said Robinson.
“The same advice that we have for older people can apply to kids. If you want to make sure you avoid added sugars, choose the things that you know don’t have them in them like fresh fruit and vegetables,” said Herrick.