Yesterday, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued new guidance suggesting that children aged 2 to 18 consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day, that they limit their intake of sugar-sweetened drinks to no more than eight ounces weekly, and that children under two not consume any foods or beverages with added sugars at all:
As a kid/food writer, I can attest to the previous “lack of clarity and consensus regarding how much added sugar is considered safe for children” noted by the AHA in its press release. For example, when I wrote my free Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom and, more recently, when I researched my Civil Eats story on sugary school breakfasts, it was surprisingly hard to find reliable added-sugar recommendations for children.
So I’m glad the AHA made its announcement yesterday, offering parents and advocates a firm benchmark for the first time. At the same time, though, I can’t help but note that the “six teaspoons a day” warning is so out of whack with the reality of most kids’ daily diets that it feels more aspirational than achievable.
The AHA says that, on average, American children are currently eating three times the recommended amount on a daily basis and are “drinking their age in sugary drink servings each and every week.” That’s a serious problem, as eating too much added sugar is directly linked to an increased risk of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Clearly, as a society, we need to scale back significantly on the amount of sugar we all consume.
But in an effort to “keep it simple for parents and public health advocates,” the AHA chose a single added sugar benchmark regardless of a child’s age and daily calorie needs. In this respect, the recommendation is actually more stringent than the recently issued 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which for the first time suggest that added sugars comprise no more than ten percent of an individual’s daily calories.
As blogger and registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak discussed in a post on Real Mom Nutrition last year, using the “ten percent of calories” benchmark means a child’s suggested added sugar limit will vary by age. Here’s the chart she prepared based on My Plate recommendations for children’s daily calorie needs:
Even these more liberal, age-adjusted added sugar recommendations would be hard for many parents to adhere to, as the photos in Sally’s post well illustrated. But by asking parents to restrict all children’s daily added sugar intake to the level deemed appropriate for toddlers, the AHA has set a very stringent standard indeed.
For example, this morning I baked a batch of whole wheat oatmeal muffins for my kids’ breakfast (ambitious for a school day, I know!), which contained just one half-cup of brown sugar for a dozen muffins. That seemed like a reasonable amount when I chose the recipe, but if my math is correct (one half-cup = eight tablespoons = 24 teaspoons), this comes to two teaspoons of sugar per muffin. My teenaged son put away three, which means he hit the AHA’s added-sugar quota before he even left the house.
Similarly, just one dessert (such as a cup of vanilla ice cream) or two tablespoons of maple syrup on pancakes would also put a child over the 6 teaspoon limit. And, of course, sugar is present in many other foods a child typically encounters in a given day, such as peanut butter, pasta sauce, ketchup, salad dressing and yogurt.
But even if adhering to the “six teaspoons a day” limit proves difficult for many of us, the AHA benchmark is certainly consciousness-raising. And, along with the new requirement that Nutrition Facts disclose added sugars, the AHA recommendation will also likely encourage manufacturers to start scaling back on excess sweeteners, particularly in foods commonly eaten by children.
I also anticipate that the AHA guidance will prove useful for parents seeking to reduce the amount of sugary foods offered in their child’s classroom. For example, just six Jolly Rancher candies handed out as a classroom reward have almost 6 teaspoons of added sugar, while one Capri Sun juice pouch and five hard peppermint candies given to “boost energy” on standardized testing days contain almost 8 teaspoons.
Most importantly, given the almost 14 million kids who eat school breakfast every day, I’m hopeful that the AHA recommendation, along with the new DGA on added sugar, will eventually make insanely sugary school breakfasts like this one (offered in my district before recent reforms were instituted) a thing of the past:
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