You wouldn’t hand your 7-year-old a cigarette and a beer, but University of California researchers say the overload of sugar in the diets of kids—and adults—is just as bad for health.
Their new report, published earlier this month in the journal Nature, contends that sugar contributes to heart disease, diabetes and cancer that kill 35 million people around the world each year.
The news is making me think twice about the sweetened yogurt, 100-calorie pack of cookies, and even the whole-grain crackers my child takes in her lunch —as well as the hot chocolate I make on cold mornings, her favorite granola and all of the snacks kids are offered at every turn. (Like the 600-calorie soft drink and cookie snack handed out one day at her soccer practice … more calories and sugar than any little kid could run off!)
It all adds up. You’d never feed a toddler 14 teaspoons of sugar—but that’s how much the average 3-year-old gets daily in her food, one Pennsylvania State University study found. Older kids eat even more: 21 teaspoons a day for 4- to 8-year-olds and up to 34 teaspoons a day for 14- to 18-year olds, according to the American Heart Association. That’s way more than the 3 teaspoons a day of total added sugars recommended for little kids and the 5 to 8 teaspoons a day recommended for teens by the heart association.
Don’t worry about the natural sugar in fruit, milk or grains. Do wise up about added sugars. A big fountain soda can pack 15 teaspoons, a big fruit smoothie about 12. A fruit-flavored yogurt may have 5 teaspoons of added sugar; a pack of peanut-butter crackers, about 6. There are added sweeteners in everything from fish sticks and barbecue sauce to pork n’ beans, peanut butter, and lunch meats, too.
Why worry? The new understanding about sugar is that it’s more than empty calories. Health researchers are beginning to understand that sweeteners of all sorts—old-fashioned cane sugar, ubiquitous and much-reviled high-fructose corn syrup, even earthy-crunchy “alternative sweeteners” like agave syrup and unrefined sugar—mess with metabolism. Sugar boosts blood pressure, damages the liver, raises cholesterol and triglyceride levels (and so boosts heart disease risk) and changes the way hormones in the body work. “Sugar,” said one University of California researcher, “is toxic beyond its calories.”
What you can do: One way to get a grip on sugar in your household is by buying products with lower levels of added sweeteners. Do it by comparing the grams of sugar listed on the nutrition facts panel for different brands of the same food (like crackers or cereal). That can get a little tricky, because the label doesn’t differentiate between natural sugars found in fruit, grains and dairy products and the stuff added at the food factory. Find the added sugars by reading the ingredients list. If a sweetener’s high on the list—or if a product contains several different sweeteners—you may want to think twice.
Hidden sweeteners to watch for: Sugar goes by many aliases. These include high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar and brown sugar as well as agave nectar, cane crystals, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, sucrose and syrup.