March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
High added sugar intake has been linked to everything from dental cavities to obesity to Type 2 diabetes to heart disease to other health conditions — many of which last into adulthood. Minimizing added sugars is a priority for many parents, but it's not as simple as trading cookies and soda for fruit and water. Avoiding obvious sources is one thing, but added sugar can be found in many foods where you may not expect it.
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, added sugars include sugars, syrups and other caloric sweeteners. Simply put, added sugars sweeten a food — and although they add calories, they offer virtually no nutrition.
On an ingredient label, sugar may appear under many names — more than 50, actually. Some of the most common ones include cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar and crystal solids. And, don't forget brown sugar, honey, maple syrup and brown rice syrup.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommends Americans limit added sugars to no more than 10 percent of their daily calorie needs. That's about 12 teaspoons (48 grams of sugar) on a 2,000-calorie diet. But for kids — especially little kids, who may only need 1,200 to 1,400 calories per day — it's even less.
But, rather than obsessing over grams and teaspoons, focus on reducing added sugars by limiting products that contain them.
Common Sources of Added Sugars
Some sources of added sugars are easy to spot, such as:
- Sugary beverages (soda, fruit punch, sweet coffee and energy drinks)
- Sugary cereal
- Candy and chocolates
- Flavored yogurt
- Baked goods such as cakes, pastries and cookies
However, added sugars can hide in some surprising places, including:
- Whole-grain cereals and granola
- Instant oatmeal
- Frozen foods
- Granola bars, protein bars and cereal bars
- Pasta sauce
- Dried fruit, canned fruit, applesauce and fruit juices
- Baby food
- Barbecue sauce, ketchup, salad dressing and other condiments
Tips for Avoiding Added Sugars
The first step in reducing your family's added sugar intake takes place in the grocery store. Scan labels for added sweeteners and, instead, fill your shopping cart with healthier options. "I recommend using fruits and vegetables that are naturally sweet when baking or cooking," said Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RDN, CSSD, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Examples include bananas, sweet potatoes and apples. You can add a mashed banana to your oatmeal in the morning and microwave it for a minute, which adds sweetness to the oatmeal."
"For beverages, I recommend water, milk, unsweetened tea and sparking water," she added.
You also can reduce added sugar intake at home by cooking from scratch. By making your own granola, pasta sauce and condiments and serving homemade baked treats, you are in control of the ingredients used. "I also reduce the amount of sugar I use in recipes," says Pritchett. "Watch out for added sugars in things like granola bars by making your own at home. Opt for plain yogurt and sweeten your own with frozen fruit or a drizzle of honey." This trick works with cereal too. As your family's taste buds adjust, gradually use less and less of the sweetened varieties.Make a healthy relationship with food the overall focus instead of a completely sugar-free diet. Encourage positive associations with foods such as fruits and vegetables by playing up their good qualities and fresh taste — and save the sweet stuff for special occasions.