Despite it being an ingredient that no one needs on a daily basis, sugar plays a starring role in many of our diets. The American Heart Association suggest that kids eat no more than three teaspoons (12 grams) of sugar a day, but Sara Yen, registered dietitian at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center, says most kids are probably exceeding that. And with the many sugar variations and substitutes, there seems to be confusion about what sugar and its spinoffs really are, and what they mean for our bodies.
Yen demystifies the situation without sugarcoating it.
“The reason we tell patients to avoid sugar is because it provides calories and refined carbohydrates, but not much else,” she says. “It’s what we call empty calories: You take them in, but in terms of fiber, vitamins and minerals, it’s not beneficial.”
What about so-called natural sweeteners like agave nectar and honey? Yen explains that sugar, agave and honey are all just forms of glucose—the only difference is the source they come from. While agave and honey have slightly more calories than sugar, people may need to use less of it because it’s sweeter.
Organic and brown sugar may seem like more healthful options than white sugar, but they, too, don’t fully live up to their reputations as better alternatives. And while organic sugars may have less exposure to pesticides and herbicides, they may not mean much in terms of health benefits. “Some studies show that organic sugars contain a little bit of vitamins and minerals, but there are plenty of others that disprove it,” says Yen. As for brown sugar, the news is no better. Brown sugar gets its color from molasses, which is taken out and refined to make white sugar. “When it comes down to it, sweeteners like brown sugar have less processing than white, refined sugar, but that does nothing to benefit your blood sugar or your weight,” she says.
To avoid the calories and confusion, some people—especially those with diabetes and people trying to lose weight—choose artificial sweeteners, like Splenda, Sweet’N Low and Equal. But rumors of potentially harmful ingredients and side effects loom. “They had a really bad wrap for a while, but they’ve been deemed safe by the FDA,” Yen says. “The studies that sparked those rumors weren’t human studies, they were done in mice and rats.”
Children with type 1 diabetes have special sugar considerations, since they need to be careful to control their blood sugar. Yen suggests occasional use of artificial sweeteners to do just that. “I usually suggest Splenda solely for its taste,” she says. “It’s a little sweeter than others, and tastes more like sugar. Aspartame has an aftertaste, and most people don’t prefer it,” she says.
So how can we make sure kids consume sugar in the most healthful way possible? Like with any other food—especially those that aren’t nutrient-dense, moderation is key. “If you’re occasionally pepping up the taste of something with a sweetener, that’s fine, but in general, too much sugar of any kind isn’t healthy,” says Yen. She also offers these tips for youngsters:
- Limit treat foods. Cookies and cupcakes shouldn’t be viewed as snacks but as special occasion foods. Smart treat ingredients are ones without empty calories, like pudding with low-fat milk.
- Serve juices wisely. Limit juice to one cup of 100 percent juice a day – and keep in mind that a cup for a child is only 4 ounces.
- Save your child’s smile. Sugar’s affect on teeth is something we really focus on, so I don’t suggest ever putting a sugary juice in a bottle, especially before a child is 1 year old. As for brushing, start as soon as a child’s teeth appear, around 6 to 12 months, and help toddlers with reaching the hard-to-get teeth.
- Savor smarter sugar treats. Snacks like fruit, yogurt dip (for veggies), applesauce, canned and dried fruits and trail mixes are a great way to add a little sweetness while still getting fiber and other nutrients.
To learn more about choosing healthy snacks and sweets, visit our Optimal Weight for Life program.