Sugar continues to be at the top of the list of nutrients that consumers are trying to reduce in their diets. A recent update from the American Heart Association noted, “Strong evidence supports the association of added sugars with increased cardiovascular disease in children.”
The group recommends that children should consume no more than 6 teaspoons or 25 grams (100 calories) of added sugar per day. Moreover, the World Health Organization and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars make up less than 10% of overall calories. That’s significantly less than most children currently consume.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, added sugars that U.S. consumers ages 1 and older consume average 66 grams per day (266 calories). The top source of added sugars are sugar-sweetened beverages, which account for 24% of added sugars, and within that space, 16% of added sugars come from soft drinks. Higher-fat milk and yogurt, meanwhile, account for 4% of added sugars, and ice cream and frozen dairy desserts account for 5%.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), boys consume an average of 18 teaspoons of added sugar per day, while girls consume 15 teaspoons. Consumption varies by racial groups, indicating that parental influence and cultural food patterns affect added sugar consumption.
“Among 6- to 11-year-olds, the average intake was 19 teaspoons for non-Hispanic Black children, 18 teaspoons for non-Hispanic White children, 16 teaspoons for Hispanic children, and 12 teaspoons for non-Hispanic Asian children,” the CDC notes on its website.
Similar intakes were seen for both older and younger children. So what’s a parent — and the food industry — to do?
As a parent, I tried to limit sugars in my sons’ diets. But even in early elementary school, my boys found ways to feed their sweet tooth, frequenting homes of friends whose moms allowed liberal soda consumption and squandering their allowances on candy. While parents can’t control all sugar intake, they can set a good example and control most of what’s in the fridge and the pantry.
The dairy industry offers many alternatives for consumers eyeing sugar reduction. In fact, some reduced-sugar plain and flavored milks weigh in at 6 or 7 grams of total sugar with 0 grams of added sugar. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, indulgent flavored milks contain as much as 37 grams of total sugar, with 27 grams coming from added sugar.
Most sugar used in dairy beverages is cane sugar. Although beet and cane sugar are almost identical nutritionally, and both deliver 4 calories per gram, all beet sugar grown in the United States is derived from genetically modified sources. This may explain why most dairy producers declare that their sugar is from cane.
There are many high-intensity sweeteners available, and industry often combines nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. Some controversies still exist about the safety of high-intensity sweeteners, with a trend toward more natural sweeteners in the dairy industry.
A recent article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Plausible Biological Interactions of Low- and Non-Calorie Sweeteners with the Intestinal Microbiota: An Update of Recent Studies,” reviewed the effects of high-intensity sweeteners on the gut microbiota. The conclusion was that although generally safe, some high-intensity sweeteners do have limited effects on gut microbiota composition.
In adults and children, use of non-sugar sweeteners may show a small beneficial effect on body mass index. And serving unflavored milk with meals is a great way to train children to limit intake of added sugars.