Australian infants and toddlers eat unhealthy amounts of sugar. This is mainly because the products marketed and sold by the processed food industry are high in sugar.
According to Australia’s latest National Nutrition Survey, children aged 2 to 3 consumed 32 grams of added sugar per day, the equivalent of 8 teaspoons of white sugar.
Our research shows that the increased availability of ultra-processed foods for very young children may contribute to sugary diets.
So what can parents do?
What too much sugar does to children
The problem with too much sugar in our diet is that it provides kilojoules but not much else nutritionally.
These extra kilojoules promote weight gain and obesity. They are also a major contributor to tooth decay in young children and often replace healthy options like fruits, vegetables and dairy products in a child’s diet.
One in four Australian children has dental caries in their primary or permanent teeth.
Read more: Not all calories are equal – a dietitian explains the different ways the types of food you eat are important for your body
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that “free sugar intake” be limited to less than 10% of our total daily kilojoules for everyone. In fact, the WHO is now considering reducing this amount to 5% as children’s sugar intakes remain high.
Free sugars are those added to foods and drinks, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. Free sugars do not include natural sugars found in whole (unprocessed) fruits and vegetables or milk.
Results from the Australian National Nutrition Survey indicate that toddlers aged 2-3 years consumed an average of 11% of their total energy intake from free sugar. Half of toddlers exceeded the current WHO sugar-free sugar recommendation.
Where does sugar come from?
The latest National Health Survey also tells us that most sugar comes from highly processed foods like baked goods, sugary drinks, chocolate and confectionery, breakfast cereals and desserts.
These foods provide 80-90% of children’s daily added sugar intake.
But it’s not just sweets. Commercial infant and toddler foods are a major source of hidden sugars in young children’s diets. They are largely ultra-processed foods that have gone through multiple industrial processes. They contain ingredients such as added sugar, salt, fat as well as additives to make them appealing. Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients that would not be used if we made a similar product at home.
Our research shows that ultra-processed foods, especially snacks, are common. They account for 85% of all foods marketed for toddlers in Australia (as of 2019).
These ultra-processed toddler foods often contain ingredients like fruit jellies, purees or concentrates. They may look healthy – with slogans like “made from real fruit” – but are very different from the whole fruit they come from.
Read more: Ultra-processed foods are destroying our health – and the planet
Consumers might assume that these products are healthy based on the labeling and pictures of fruits on the packaging. But our bodies handle ultra-processed foods very differently from a whole food, which has undergone no or minimal processing.
Some toddler foods marketed as “no added sugar” or “all natural” contain in some cases up to 50% fruit sugar in the form of fruit purees or concentrates.
Some toddler milks, also ultra-processed, contain more sugar in the same volume as a soft drink. And nearly a third of savory toddler foods also contain fruit purées.
While this may make the food more palatable to a child, ensuring that parents will buy it again, it also ensures that children will develop a preference for sweets.
Read more: Food and drink are getting sweeter. Even if it’s not just sugar, it’s bad for our health
3 things parents can do
Although it is not necessary to cut out all free sugar, evidence tells us that most children consume more than is good for them. So how can we reduce this?
1. Demand accurate labeling
Honest food labeling where food manufacturers are required to reveal the amount of added sugar in food products is needed. For example, a clear definition of “added sugar” would ensure that all harmful sugars are included on food labels, including highly processed fruit ingredients used in infant and toddler foods. You can sign up to advocate for this through the Kids are Sweet Enough campaign.
2. Pantry Swaps
Replace sugary foods with foods often already in the kitchen. Swap common sources of sugar, including cakes, cookies, pastries, sugar, and sweet spreads, with whole-grain breads, low-sugar cereals (like porridge or Weet-Bix), vegetables and fruit (cut to size) and nut pastes.
Swap sugary drinks, sugary dairy products and toddler milks for plain water (boiled and cooled for children over 6 months) and plain cow’s milk (from 12 months).
3. Tune into places to learn more
For practical advice and support on feeding your baby or toddler, download the My Baby Now app from the App Store or Google Play.
Parents can join our free online Infant Nutrition course or search here to see if the INFANT (Infant Feeding, Activity Play and Nutrition) program is running in your area.
Read more: Sugar detox? Cut carbs? A doctor explains why you should keep fruit on the menu
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