7 Ways to Reduce Added Sugar in Children's Diets

One of the food issues that parents are most concerned about is how to reduce their child's sugar intake. Although wanting sweet treats is something innate in babies, we can re-educate their palate towards more natural flavors.
7 Ways to Reduce Added Sugar in Children's Diets

Last update: 12 November, 2020

Reducing sugar in children’s diets can be easy if we know what foods actually contain too much sugar.

Added sugars are those that don’t naturally exist in a food or drink and are added during the processing or preparation phase. Thus, they differ from the sugars naturally present in foods. These are found in fruits (fructose), milk (lactose), among other natural ingredients.

For some time now,  various organizations specialized in health and nutrition have been warning parents about letting their children consume added sugar and have been advocating to reduce this substance from children’s diet.

There’s no longer any doubt that high consumption of sugar can lead to different health problems in our children, such as diabetes, obesity, heart problems, or tooth decay. These can occur both during childhood and adulthood.

How much is too much sugar?

Sugar cube
Most people’s sugar intake is higher than the World Health Organization’s recommendations.

The WHO recommends that “In both adults and children, WHO recommends reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake. WHO suggests a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake.”

For an adult, this would be the same as consuming between 25 and 50 grams of sugar a day. For children, and especially the younger ones who need between 1,200 and 1,400 calories a day, these amounts are reduced even more. According to these numbers, children shouldn’t consume more than 20-30 grams of sugar a day.

According to data from the Anibes study, Spaniards consumed an average of 71.5 grams of sugar per day in 2015. This amount almost triples the recommendations that the World Health Organization considers ideal.

Recognizing added sugar on labels

As we mentioned before, sugar is naturally found in some foods. For example, natural sugars can be found in fruits, vegetables, milk, or yogurt.

In this case, we must emphasize that this sugar isn’t harmful to our health. On the contrary, we can even say that these foods are healthy and necessary for a healthy diet.

The problem is that in the nutritional composition we cannot distinguish between the natural sugars and added sugars. Therefore, one of our biggest tips is to always look at the product’s ingredients.

If we find sugar, brown sugar, maltodextrin, corn syrup, glucose syrup, dextrose, and anything similar, it has added sugars. These are the sugars in the children’s diet that we have to reduce.

How to reduce sugar in children’s diets

1. Drink water instead of soda or fruit juice

Child drinking water to reduce sugar
Water is still the healthiest drink to hydrate children. If they don’t drink it on its own, you can add some fruit to flavor it.

Sugary drinks, juices, soft drinks and energy drinks are the main culprits for the high sugar intakes of Spanish children. Reducing how much of these drinks your child consumes is important, since they don’t have any nutritional value.

When we’re thirsty, there’s nothing better than water. If it’s difficult for us to get children to drink water, we can give them different flavors naturally. For example, we can do this with infused fruit and no additional sugar.

2. For dessert, have fruit or yogurt

To replace dairy desserts such as custard, custard or flavored yogurt, it’s better to offer them fruit, natural yogurt, natural Greek yogurt or natural kefir.

Not only will we be reducing sugar, but they’ll also benefit from the fiber, vitamins and minerals of fresh fruit. If they like flavored yogurt, you can mix it with fruit or dried fruit pieces such as raisins, dried peaches or dates.

3. Avoid children’s cereals

Breakfast cereals are another product that usually comes loaded with sugar. Especially the special ones for children. In this case, we have two options:

  • Change the cereals for oat flakes, toasted cornflakes or puffed rice that don’t have sugar, and mix them with fruit, nuts, cocoa or cinnamon.
  • Or replace cereals with toast or snacks. The possibilities are endless: with cheese, avocado, tortilla, tuna, peanut butter, tomato, among others.

4. Be wary of products marketed towards children

Child eating to reduce sugar
Some products designed especially for children are significant sources of added sugar – avoid them!

Be careful with products specially designed for the little ones which you’re sure to find on the supermarket shelves. Here, we mean the different types of milks, yogurts, fruit purées and similar products.

Although their manufacturers are determined to highlight their benefits for the health of our children, most of the times they’ve included extra sugar in their formulas.

  • After their first year, children can drink the same cow’s milk as adults.
  • And in the case of fruit purees, cookies, cocoa, etc., we recommend always looking at the ingredients and choosing the versions without sugar or with a reduced amount.

5. Keep an eye out for sugar in unsuspected products

We find it where we least expect it. Especially when it comes to processed products such as sauces (ketchup, caesar dressing, tomato sauce), meat products, pizzas, ready meals or packaging. Therefore, we have to be careful when trying to reduce their consumption as much as possible.

Although preparing everything ourselves can be difficult due to our schedules, we can always:

  • Make our own sauces (mayonnaise, tomato sauce, pesto sauce, vinaigrettes…) and vegetable creams.
  • Buy sausages and bread in reliable stores where we can ask what ingredients they use.
  • Read the labels of the other products to choose the sugar-free versions.

6. Keep sweets and chocolate out of sight

We know that it’s not a good idea to ban food from children, as this could arouse greater interest in them. However, not having them at home will help reduce their intake and will make your child see them as an occasional product.

  • We can also save these treats for special occasions and it’s better to buy them just before that special day.

7. Use alternative sweeteners

Brown sugar, honey, syrups, coconut sugar, among others, also add sugars onto our diet. Therefore, we must also control how much we put in our foods or our drinks.

When cooking cakes, cookies, or muffins, we can use ingredients that provide sweet taste we crave in a natural way. Some of them are ripe bananas, dates, raisins, or pear or apple compote.

Re-educate the palate

Reducing sugar intake in children’s diets isn’t easy. Sugar is one of the favorite flavors our little ones crave most. The more sugar our children consume, the more tolerance they acquire. Unfortunately, today’s children are exposed to a multitude of sugary products.

Therefore, our final recommendation is to be patient and gradually reduce the consumption of sugar, starting with foods that our children consume most frequently. This is the only way we’ll be able to get our children used to the natural sweetness of food again.

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  • World Health Organizations. Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva, 2015.
  • Fundación Española de la Nutrición. Ingesta Dietética de azúcares (añadidos e intrínsecos) y fuentes alimentarias en la población española: resultados del estudio científico ANIBES. Número 15.
  • ESPAGHAN. Complementary feeding: A commentary by the ESPAGHAN Committee on Nutrition. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 2008. 46:99-100.
  • VSF Justicia Alimentaria Global. Planeta Azúcar. Las armas con las que la industria alimentaria domina nuestras vidas. 2015. Barcelona.