Health expert and leading dietician Emer Delaney explains how much sugar is unhealthy for children, and offers simple swaps to help reduce their intake.
Most of us eat too much sugar, and the World Health Organisation recommends that we should reduce the amount of ‘free sugars’ we eat. But what exactly does this mean? Free sugars are any sugars that are added to food or drinks, or present naturally in unsweetened fruit juices, fruit purées and pastes, as well as honey or syrups. This does not include natural sugars found in fruits, vegetables and milk. No more than of 5% of our daily calories should come from added sugars. Although progress has been made in reducing our intake, the most recent UK survey showed that our children continue to consume over twice the recommended amount of their daily calories from free sugar.
What happens when we eat too much sugar?
Consuming too much sugar on a regular basis means we're eating too many calories, and if we don’t use those calories as fuel, our body will store them as fat. This can lead to weight gain, and if this happens to our children, it’s likely they will carry the weight into their adolescent and adult years, potentially becoming overweight or obese.
Some people believe that diet affects children's behaviour, and that children become hyperactive when they eat sugar, making them less likely to concentrate at school. This is a hotly debated topic, with many parents saying that what their child eats dramatically affects their child's behaviour. Scientifically speaking, there are no published studies to confirm this is the case. What we do know is that sugar can lead to tooth decay, which is the biggest cause of hospital admissions among children. Health experts, including the British Dental, Dietetic and Medical Associations have all lobbied the government for a sugar tax, which is now in place in the form of a Soft Drinks Industry Levy.
How much free sugar should our kids have?
While there is room for a little bit of added sugar in our children’s diets, these foods and drinks should be seen as occasional treats, not the norm. High-sugar foods tend to contain fewer vitamins, minerals and fibre, and they may start to replace the nutritious foods children need to grow and develop.
Maximum recommended sugar intake per day by age group:
- Four to six years old – 19g (5 teaspoons)
- Seven to 10 years – 24g (6 teaspoons)
- From 11 years – 30g (7 teaspoons)
There’s no guideline limit for children under four years of age, but it’s recommended that they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and foods with added sugar.
Food and drinks to keep an eye on
Biscuits, some breakfast cereals, sauces (including pasta sauce), cakes, chocolates, sweets, fizzy drinks, smoothies and fruit juice are all considered high in free sugars. Almost a quarter of the free sugars in our children’s diet comes from sugary drinks, and one single can of fizzy drink may contain as much as nine teaspoons of sugar.
What is a high level of sugar?
In order to identify products that are high in sugar, you'll need to be label savvy. The figures you see on a nutrition label represent the total sugar, so this includes the added free sugars as well as those that are naturally occurring.
Food products are considered high or low in sugar if they fall above or below the following figures:
- High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
- Low: 5g or less of total sugars per 100g
If the amount of sugars per 100g is between these figures, that's regarded as a medium level.
Drinks are considered high or low in sugar if they fall above or below the following figures:
- High: more than 11.25g of total sugars per 100ml
- Low: 2.5g or less of total sugars per 100ml
If the amount of sugars per 100ml is between these figures, that's regarded as a medium level.
Top tips and simple swaps
Swap high-sugar breakfast cereals for 50:50 or wholegrain toast, crumpets, bagels, plain yogurt with fruit or porridge with berries. Make sure you read labels closely, as some cereals position themselves as high fibre and healthy, yet contain high levels of sugar. At weekends, try scrambled or poached eggs on toast or savoury pancakes for a tasty alternative.
Instead of cakes, pastries, biscuits or sweets, try a plain scone, unsalted nuts, breadsticks, fruit and vegetable sticks, or oat cakes topped with a small amount of peanut butter, sliced banana, cheese or hummus.
Rather than fizzy drinks, try sparkling water mixed with a small amount of unsweetened fruit juice. Alternatively, blend some fruit, ice and milk to make a healthier alternative.
Why not bake a fruit crumble or tart with minimal added sugar, or try one of our sugar-free bakes? Add a drizzle of cream for a healthier alternative to jelly and ice cream. Plain yogurt topped with berries, or fruit salad are both delicious options too.
Be a role model – children tend to copy behaviour, so if they see you eating a healthy diet, they will too.
Remember, the advice isn’t just to cut down on sugar, as demonising one ingredient isn’t very helpful. We should instead encourage our children to make healthier choices, eat more fruits and vegetables and choose wholegrain options to increase fibre intake. Being active is also key, and encouraging different sports and activities is just as important as eating a healthy and balanced diet.
Do you want to test your sugar knowledge? Try our fun, interactive quiz to see if you have your sugar facts in shape.
Everything you need to know about sugar
Discover our guides to a healthy diet for young children, school children and adolescents. Curious about quitting sugar or finding alternative sweet substitutes? Find out all you need to know about sugar in our expert guides.
Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
This article was last reviewed on 28th November 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications.
Do you think children consume too much sugar? Do you agree with the sugar tax on soft drinks? Or do you think the impact of sugar is overrated when it comes to children's health? Leave a comment below...