Q&A: Dangers of sugar for children

Do young children's bodies need sugar? And if so, how much a day and in what form?

No, physiologically children do not need added sugar in their diets at all. The only recommendation around sugar is a maximum intake allowed per day. South African guidelines state that sugar should make up no more than 6-10% of your total energy intake per day. Based on an average intake this would mean that just one glass of sweetened juice or soft drink contains more added sugar than most children should consume in an entire day.

What are the risks for babies and toddlers who consume too much sugar?

Excessive sugar consumption poses many risks which can be particularly detrimental during the developmental years of childhood. There is a large body of evidence that has linked a high intake of sugar to an increased risk for certain chronic diseases as well as being a key contributor to obesity and dental caries. In addition to this, because sugar is high in calories but has very little nutritional value, it tends to displace more nutritional foods from our diets, a phenomenon known as nutrient dilution.

Some moms are throwing sugar-free birthday parties. Would you consider this an extreme option?

Yes. In dealing with the complicated world of nutrition you need to not only consider the physiological impacts of your decisions but also the psychological factors. In my experience any form of total deprivation tends to have the opposite of the desired effect, and teaching children moderation from an early age is probably one of the best tools you, as a parent can equip them with. The real problem with the increasing sugar consumption that we are seeing is not from the occasional treat at a birthday party, it stems from the fact that drinking sugary beverages and eating sugary foods is becoming the norm.

At the other end of the spectrum, other moms fill their toddler's drink bottles with Coke. Do you think enough South Africans are aware of the dangers of sugar?

I believe that there is always a place for increased awareness, particularly for parents who have such a unique opportunity to develop healthy habits in their children from an early age. The responsibility lies at many levels and I think there is a lot more that can be done by Industry, Government and schools and work places not only to create awareness but also to create environments more conducive to the correct behaviours, ie to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

What sources of "hidden" sugar should moms beware of? Example, items such as baby foods that might not expect to contain sugar. 

Baby foods are a very good example of hidden sugars, as are certain yoghurts, fruit juices, breakfast cereals, sports drinks, cereal bars and honey. As always reading the label will assist with making more informed choices.

When readin nutritional labels, what should moms look out for? When does a product contain too much sugar?

Sugar comes in many forms and is denoted by many names on food labels which can complicate matters. When reading labels look out for the following terms which refer to added sugar: honey, molasses, sucrose, fruit juice concentrate, deflavoured fruit juice, high-fructose corn syrup and fructose.

Is sugar the new nicotine, or are we over-reacting to its dangers when included in a balanced diet?

The difficulty with comparing sugar to tobacco is that when it comes to cigarettes there is no grey area, smoking is bad for you as well as for those around you. Sugar, on the other hand, when consumed on occasion and in small quantities can be included as part of a balanced diet. Having said that, I don’t think it is necessary to compare sugar intake to smoking, they are two very different issues and each have merit in their own right. So simply because sugar may or may not be the new nicotine does not minimise the attention it should be given as part of a public health message.

Are there any sugar alternatives that you would recommend- e.g. natVia

Rather than replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners which merely perpetuates children’s natural taste for sweet foods, parents should try to develop children’s palates to appreciate more subtle flavours of sweetness found in whole foods such as fruits.

In the US, Dr Robert Lustig has called for laws restricting sugar as it if were tobacco. What is your opinion on such laws? Do you think they could- or should- ever be considered in South Africa?

Policies such as this will always be met with opposing views. They will be welcomed and seen as necessary by health professionals but possibly seen as encroaching on the rights of individuals to make their own choices by members of the public. There is merit in both arguments but ultimately the increase of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease is a crisis and requires drastic action.  As an organisation that is driven by a core purpose of “making people healthier” our view is policies that encourage the right health behaviour has to be part of the solution.  

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