Sugar: sweet treat or silent killer?
In their new book, childhood obesity experts Professor Michael Goran and Emily Ventura reveal the surprising ways the white stuff is damaging our children’s health and how we can help them to cut back
If your children are overweight or have fillings, you probably know sugar is at the root of the issue. But there are many other ways that the white stuff affects their health that can go undetected.
These include short-term problems with mood, behaviour, memory and ability to concentrate in school, plus upsetting digestion and inflammatory conditions such as acne and asthma.
Longer term, there are risks of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease as well as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is seen increasingly in youngsters.
And the slow and often silent progression of chronic conditions starts early in life.
It’s not just that children today are consuming more sugar than previous generations, they are actually more vulnerable than adults.
One of the big worries is the spike in the amount of fructose they are getting – sugar found in fruit and veg. Much of this arrived surreptitiously, in sweets, yogurts and drinks labelled as “naturally sweetened”, “no artificial sugars” or “made with 100% juice”.
Even drinking freshly squeezed juice provides a rapidly absorbed hit of fructose because the fibre from the fruit has been removed. But our bodies are not designed to handle concentrated doses of fructose and young children have an especially hard time processing it in the liver, where it is converted to fat, which starts to build up leading to NAFLD.
The use of low-calorie sweeteners in our food supply is also a problem. Often, products marketed to schoolchildren have both regular and artificial sweeteners in them.
The popular Robinson’s Fruit Shoot No Added Sugar drinks, for example, contain fruit juice concentrates as well as sucralose and acesulfame K.
These types of sweeteners can lead to a sweeter tooth, an increase in calorie consumption, altered gut microbiome and, it seems, long-term consequences for brain health.
The NHS suggests that children aged seven to 10 should have no more than 24g of free sugars a day, equivalent to six sugar cubes, while those aged four to six should have no more than 19g, which is five cubes. But with so many sugar-laden products designed for children, how can you help them stay within limits?
■ Start by eliminating juice, squash, and fizzy drinks. Kids will adapt to not having these surprisingly quickly. Get them used to water at meals.
■ Check labels for artificial and low-calorie sweeteners on drinks and yogurts, such as saccharin and stevia. “No added sugar” often means they contain alternative sweeteners.
■ Be wary of pre-packaged snacks that are marketed to kids. Products such as rice cakes for toddlers are often coated with juice concentrates.
■ Start the day without added sugar. Instead of juice, offer water or milk. Swap jam on toast and pancakes with syrup for a fruit compote, nut or seed butter or a soft cheese such as ricotta. Choose porridge or unsweetened boxed cereals too.
■ Evaluate staples in your cupboards. Foods like baked beans, soups, pasta sauces and tomato sauce can all be surprisingly high in sugars. One tablespoon of ketchup can contain 4g of sugar.
■ Save sweets for special occasions. Try roasted nuts, plain popcorn or fresh fruit instead.
■ Consider baking lower sugar treats. Cut the amount of sugar the recipe calls for by up to half.