Eating patterns with fewer sources of added sugars are associated with lower rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer in adults. There is even evidence that higher intakes of added sugars have been linked to dental cavities in both children and adults. Since many foods and beverages with added sugars also contribute extra calories, there is also a risk for overweight and obesity. 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.
Added sugars sweeten a food or beverage — and although they add calories, they offer very little nutrition. On an ingredient label, sugar may appear under many names. Some 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 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugars to less than 10% of daily calorie needs. That's about 12 teaspoons (48 grams of added 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. For them, added sugars should not top 7 or 8 teaspoons (30 to 35 grams of added sugar).
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:
- Sugar sweetened beverages (soda, fruit punch, energy drinks, and some coffee and teas)
- Sweetened 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 flavored 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 Reducing Added Sugars
The first step in reducing your family's intake of added sugars takes place in the grocery store. Scan ingredient lists and Nutrition Facts Labels while in the aisle and, when possible, choose options that don’t use added sugars. Try using naturally sweet fruits and vegetables when baking and cooking. Examples include bananas, sweet potatoes and apples. You can add a fruit like berries or mashed banana to your cooked oatmeal in the morning for sweetness.
For beverages, choose plain water and milk most often for children older than 12 months. Kids five years old and under should avoid flavored milks, non-dairy milks (with the exception of soymilk for dietary or medical needs), caffeinated beverages and low-calorie beverages. Add fruit and fresh herbs, like lemon slices or mint leaves, to water for extra flavor. You also can reduce added sugars 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 and the amounts. 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 super sweet stuff for special occasions.