I’ve written before about this topic more generally, but I wanted to write specifically around the guidelines and recommendations for sugar intake in babies and young children. As I know it’s an area many parents find difficult to navigate!
The purpose of this blog isn’t to demonise sugar and certainly not to make any parents feel bad about offering sugar. It is simply to share the evidence and recommendations. To hopefully help simplify what can often be a confusing topic.
Firstly, why all the fuss about sugar?
Sugar alone offers little to no nutritional value, beyond calories. It is therefore not a food that is a ‘necessary’ part of our diets. Babies and young children in particular don’t need sugar. Consuming a lot of foods that are high in added sugars, such as cakes, pastries and biscuits can mean that they become full quickly. Without having had enough vitamins and minerals from a variety of foods.
You might also hear stories saying that sugar is “addictive” or “toxic”. As well as that it causes multiple types of cancer. It’s important to note that there’s no evidence to support these types of claims. So, whilst it’s true that sugar is not necessarily ideal to be offering to young babies or children, scaremongering headlines such as these are not helpful. Nor are they truthful.
How much sugar can my baby or child have?
Recommendations from the UK government are that ‘free sugars’ – those that are added to food and drinks or sugars found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies and purees – should not make up more than 5% of our total daily energy / calorie intake.
For 11+ years, this means that the recommended maximum sugar intake is 30g/day (equivalent to 7 sugar cubes).
For 7-10 years this means 24g/day (or 6 sugar cubes).
For 4-6 years, no more than 19g/day (or 5 sugar cubes).
Sugar and sugary foods are not recommended to be added to babies’ foods and it’s best to keep added sugar in babies’ diets to a minimum.
What is the effect of sugar on young children’s behaviour?
Although there is a common notion that too much sugar can negatively affect children’s behaviour, existing scientific studies have not found a link between the two. What isn’t in doubt is that sugary foods are highly palatable, so it’s easy for children to eat more of them than they need. Free sugar causes tooth decay, provides little nutrition and therefore isn’t necessary in the diet because children can get all the nutrients and energy they need from alternative nutrient-dense food.
What about sweeteners like stevia?
EU regulations state that sweeteners should not be used in foods prepared for infants and young children. This is mainly due to lack of data on the safety or sweeteners for infants and young children, as well as the fact that children need high-energy and nutrient-rich foods. Don’t worry if you’ve already given your little one foods containing artificial sweeteners – a little is never going to be a problem – it’s just best to try to avoid them in your little one’s diet where possible.
‘Added’ vs ‘natural’ sugars
One of the most confusing things about understanding sugar intake is the difference between what counts as ‘natural’ sugars and what counts as an ‘added’ or ‘free’ sugar (free/added being the type we ideally want to limit). This is made even more confusing by the MANY sugar alternatives marketed as ‘healthier options’. When they’re simply just added sugars in a different name. Any variation of sugar or syrup, whether it’s coconut sugar, date sugar, rice sugar or maple syrup or agave nectar (along with many more examples). All of these count as added sugar as our bodies will still process it the same way.
You may read that the natural alternatives to sugar, including maple syrup and coconut sugar, have benefits of micronutrients that regular sugar does not. However, the quantities in which your little one would need to eat those in order to get any benefit, are far too high and would go well beyond recommended sugar intakes. There are much easier and more beneficial ways for babies and children to get their micronutrients!
The table below breaks down what is included in the definition of free vs. natural sugars:
Adapted from: nutrition.org
Can my baby or toddler have fruit juice or smoothies?
It can often confuse parents that whole fruits are OK to offer to children but juices and smoothies are considered added sugars. This is because sugars that are found in whole fruits are maintained within the cell structure and are therefore released more slowly when eaten. The sugars found in juices and smoothies, on the other hand, have been released from inside the cell during the processing. They are therefore consumed more easily and quickly, meaning we can have too many a lot more easily than with whole fruits. Additionally, whole fruits contain all of the beneficial fibre, which can be lost or reduced in juice and smoothies.
I’ve written before about what drinks to offer babies and toddlers, with The Mummy Dentist. I’ll share the tips specific to juices and smoothies again here:
- NHS guidance states “babies under 12 months don’t need fruit juice or smoothies”
- If you do choose to give juice or smoothies to your toddler over age 1 ensure it is diluted (one part juice: 10 parts water) and from an open cup.
- From age 5 children can have fruit juice undiluted but stick to no more than 1 portion in a day. Even as an adult a 150ml glass can only count as ONE of your 5-a-day.
- Keep fruit juice and smoothies to mealtimes only (rather than in between) to reduce the frequency of acid attacks.
- You could make smoothies containing veggies, oats and yogurt and serve these as a ‘smoothie bowl’ with a spoon too.
Understanding sugar on food labels
My blog on reading labels specifically for toddlers, covers this. However, below is a bit more information specific to sugar on nutrition labels.
Unfortunately, nutrition information in the UK currently doesn’t differentiate between free and added sugars on labels. Which can make it hard to understand how much added sugar is in foods. The nutrition labels you see will have the following information:
The ‘of which sugars’ refers to both added and free sugars. So a plain yoghurt may have 8g of sugar, but as this comes from the sugars naturally present in milk, this wouldn’t count to your child’s daily added sugar intake. The best way to check how much added sugar is in the food and drinks you buy is to check the ingredients list. A plain yoghurt with no added sugar will have only ‘yoghurt’ in the ingredients. Whereas a flavoured yoghurt may include ‘fruit purée’ which would be considered added sugar.
Summary and take-home points
- Ideally avoid added sugars for babies under 1 and limit where possible for young children
- Free (or added) sugars, are those that have been added to products during processing either by the manufacturer or when cooking at home. This includes plain sugar, syrups, fruit concentrate, puree and
- Sugars found naturally present in fruits (fresh, frozen or canned), dairy products and cereal grains do not count towards your added sugar intake
- Sugar from fruit juices and smoothies contribute to your child’s added sugar intake – opt for whole fruit where possible, or offer fruit juice style drinks at mealtimes and ideally diluted with water for children aged 1-5.
- Nutrition labels include BOTH added and free sugars in the ‘of which sugars’ number. Check the ingredients list for added sugars
And finally, do check out my blog of low-sugar recipes that are perfect for babies and toddlers. You may also like to read my post, ‘Can My Baby Have Chocolate?’ as well as the blogs I wrote on the 5 ways to flavour family food without salt and sugar and why your child’s nursery may offer puddings.