Last week, I gave my kids each a can of Coke and two sugar cubes for breakfast. I've been serving this to them regularly, although in my defence I didn't know it.
The meal I've been putting on the kitchen table looks like a tableau straight out of a breakfast commercial: Nutella on toast, a bowl of Frosted Flakes, a glass of orange juice. But the combined amount of sugar is a revolting, parental-guilt-inducing 47 grams, the same amount you'd get from washing down a pair of sugar cubes with a Coke.
Of course, you might say, a sugary cereal and chocolate smeared on bread, what was I thinking? But the juice was the worst offender, by a wide margin – and it was 100-per-cent O.J., not from concentrate.
You may have thought, given the marketing, that juice is an "all-natural" part of a healthy breakfast, that it is just as good as, or not much worse than, actual fruit. You would be wrong. Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines that all but ordered parents to swat juice boxes out of their kids' hands, stat.
We all want to feed our kids good foods, and to keep their sugar intake under control. But what hope does a parent have when juice jacks your kids up on nearly as much sugar as pop?
The American Heart Association, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Diabetes Canada and the Childhood Obesity Foundation, among others, have all joined the World Health Organization in calling on parents to reduce their children's sugar consumption.
"The evidence is extremely clear that excess sugar is harmful to you," says Dr. Tom Warshawski, chair of the Vancouver-based Childhood Obesity Foundation. "Bottom line, almost everyone is eating unhealthy levels of sugar."
According to data from the most recent Canadian Community Health Survey, kids consume 33 teaspoons of sugar a day, far above the World Health Organization's recommendation that sugars ideally make up 5 per cent but no more than 10 per cent of a person's daily calories.
The health consequences are troubling, to say the least, including an increased likelihood of everything from high blood pressure or heart disease to type-2 diabetes, sleep apnea and depression, as well as bone and joint problems. Obesity rates for children in Canada between the ages of 2 and 17 have tripled in the last 30 years, according to Statistics Canada.
Gulping down 33 teaspoons of sugar a day isn't a direct route to any one of these conditions, but certainly gets kids pointed in the wrong direction.
The lure of liquid sugars
Keep in mind that a single glass of apple juice contains the same amount of sugar as four or five apples do, without any of the fibre. "Have an orange for breakfast, don't drink orange juice," Warshawski advises.
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. In its strongest language yet on the subject, the organization declared that fruit juice has absolutely no essential role in healthy diets. "Essential means something you need to have. You simply don't need fruit juice in your diet," says Dr. Steven Abrams, chair of the AAP's committee on nutrition.
And while fruit juice is most easy for parents to mistake for a smart choice, other drinkable sugars are also big problems: Don't be fooled into thinking that "vitamin-enhanced" energy drinks, sports drinks, flavoured waters or drinkable yogurts are ever a better choice than water or milk.
What else to watch out for
Sugar is in almost every part of a child's diet, even in foods marketed as healthy choices, not just juice. "It's not as simple as having kids avoid candy. Most of our kids' sugar comes from places that we don't necessarily associate it with," says Dr. David Hammond, an associate professor in the school of public health and health systems at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
In a study published earlier this year, Hammond found that 66 per cent of packaged food contains added sugars. It turns up almost everywhere: in baby food, granola bars, yogurt and so on. Given this ubiquity, it can be difficult for parents to navigate sugar in such a way that they keep their kids' diet below recommended levels.
The study also found that added sugar was labelled in more than two dozen different ways, making a trip to the grocery store even more confusing. "This is not helping consumers," Hammond says. "We need to simplify this information."
Doing so would help parents make informed choices, which would likely mean reducing the amount of sugar children eat.
Why this is happening
It doesn't help matters that when kids aren't eating sugary foods they are being bombarded by ads for sweet treats.
Kids in Canada between the ages of 2 and 11 are exposed to more than 25 million food and drink ads each year – most of them for junk food – on the 10 most popular websites for children in that age category, according to a study commissioned by the Heart and Stroke Foundation. It was led by Monique Potvin Kent, an assistant professor in the school of public health at the University of Ottawa.
"We haven't set things up too easy for parents," Potvin Kent says. "We've kind of let food and beverage companies determine what our food environment is." She'd like to see restrictions placed on marketing to children and teens online in order to limit their exposure to junk food and other sugary items.
"In my view, it's essential," she says.
What should I do?
The recommendation is that kids consume at most six teaspoons or fewer of sugar a day, not 33. "No.1, avoid sugary drinks. That is the simplest way to get unnecessary sugars out of your diet," Warshawski says. As well, eat fresh, whole foods rather than packaged foods as much as possible, and stay away from added sugar whenever you can.
Be aware, too, that there is little to no difference between fructose, dextrose, honey, maple syrup, agave sugar or any other similar sweeteners. All of them cause a spike in blood sugar that is unhealthy. "There's no evidence it's any healthier for you than plain old table sugar," Warshawski says. Whatever sugar you prefer, prioritize moderation, he says.
And yes, while parents should "minimize the treats," Warshawski also says focusing on cakes, chips or chocolate bars often means missing the more insidious items that children consume daily, especially what you're pouring in their cups, because sugary drinks are the single largest source of added sugar in a child's diet. "Nothing is as bad as sugary drinks, quite frankly," he says.
So, this morning I gave my kids each a bowl of oatmeal and a banana. My daughter asked for Nutella on toast, but she didn't balk when I told her that from now on it's a treat she can only have on the weekend.
Then, I poured her a glass of water. She drank it without complaint.