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How much sugar should children have?

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

There's a lot of talk about sugar at the moment. There's the sugar tax, daily recommendations, and different ways of classifying sugar. It can get pretty confusing when all most parents want to know is what to feed their kids.

It's obvious that a diet packed with sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks is going to be high in sugar but sugar also turns up in foods and drinks you wouldn't necessarily expect it to. There are stealth sugars in many of the foods children love like pizza, pasta sauces and breakfast cereals.

The bottom line is over a quarter of UK children are obese or overweight and that figure is on the increase. Many experts believe food and drinks with a high sugar content are a major contributor to this obesity epidemic. Being overweight or obese has long-term health implications, so cutting back on sugar in childhood makes sense.

What do we mean by ‘sugar’?

Sugars are simple carbohydrates that taste sweet. Sugars may be present naturally in foods (such as sweet-tasting strawberries or peaches) or added to food and drink to influence their taste.

Sugars added by the manufacturers, or by us at home, to food and drink are now given the new term of 'free sugars'. Free sugars also include any sugar used in concentrated amounts in our diet, even if the product is naturally sweet, like unsweetened fruit juice.

Free sugars are the types of sugars that we need to reduce in our diet. However, some sugars we consume don’t count towards the total of consumed sugar we need to reduce.

Sugars found naturally in whole fruits, milk and some vegetables aren’t included in this definition. That’s because they are present in far smaller amounts than our usual intake of free sugar and the foods that contain them are healthy foods to include in our daily diet.

The current recommended amount of 'free sugars' in a child's diet were reviewed in 2015 by the Government's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) - an independent group of expert nutritionists.

Their recommendation is that 'free sugars' make up no more than 5% of a child's daily energy intake.

In real terms that means:

  • 4 - 6 years: 19g or 5 sugar cubes a day
  • 7 - 10 years: 24g or 6 sugar cubes a day
  • 11 and above: 30g or 7 sugar cubes a day

The most recent diet and nutrition survey from Public Health England found that children in the UK were in fact getting up to 15% of their total energy intake from added sugars.

What's so bad about sugar?

"Evidence shows that a high level of sugar consumption is associated with an increased risk of tooth decay and risk of high or excessive energy intake, which can result in weight gain and obesity," says dietitian Lucy Upton, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

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