On the Pulse

Overloaded on Hidden Sugar

11.24.2014 | Seattle Children's Press Team

A glass full of sugar cubes.

When it comes to the holiday season, sugar is everywhere, particularly in desserts and holiday candy. But did you know that sugar is also added to many everyday foods, including soups and yogurt?

“Many people are unaware of just how pervasive added sugar is in our foods,” said Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “It isn’t just cookies and soda, it’s being added to many foods that most people wouldn’t consider as sweets.”

The result: the average American adult is consuming three times more sugar than is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) – 76.7 grams per day versus the recommended 25 grams per day, according to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“The problem with sugar is that it presents a variety of risks to our health,” said Grow. “Some are more obvious, in the sense that more sugar means more calories which can contribute to weight gain. Weight gain leads to obesity, and can bring along many health problems like diabetes. But an excess amount of sugar also affects our long term health by altering our metabolism and causing inflammation.”

The rise of added sugar and impact on health

Added sugar is the sugar added to processed food and drinks while they are being made, as well as sugar you may add to your food at home. Food manufacturers may add both natural sugars (such as fructose) and processed sugars (such as high-fructose corn syrup) to processed food and drinks.

While added sugar has been around for years, the health concerns it presents have multiplied as they have found their way into countless everyday foods.

High amounts of added sugar can be found in everything from soup and yogurt to juice, bread and tomato sauce. When several of these products are consumed in a day, it becomes incredibly easy to exceed the recommended 25 grams per day. Some products, like a 20 ounce soda, have more than three times the recommended sugar for one day.

Too much sugar has been linked to an increased risk of tooth decay, liver problems, heart disease, and even cancer. Research has also evaluated the effects that overconsumption of sugar can have on the brain, finding that the effects can be similar to drug addiction.

“This is where the conversations about ‘will power’ don’t hold up,” said Grow. “We know that sugar chemically alters the brain, and that raising awareness is only part of the solution. Larger policy changes are needed, like labeling how much added sugar is in our food. We also need manufacturers to provide better, healthier options.”

Advice for parents

When children eat too much sugar, the effects can be especially harmful, which is why Grow encourages reading food labels, along with modeling good eating behaviors.

“Children consume fewer calories than adults, so for them the effects of sugar are amplified,” said Grow. “Also, introducing larger quantities of sugar while a child’s brain and body is still developing can prime them to crave sugary foods in the future.”

Grow offers the following tips:

Read labels: Knowing what is in your food matters, and the best way to start is by spending some time at the supermarket reading. Aim to find healthier versions of the foods you eat every day, and attempt to stick with whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. Teach kids to read labels and help you decide as well.

Do as I do: Children are incredibly perceptive, and they pick up cues from their parents. No one is saying you can’t have a cookie in front of your children, but keep it in moderation. Parents who model healthy eating habits can pass similar behavior on to their kids. Treating high sugar foods as special occasion foods rather than everyday foods will increase the likelihood that your kids will too.

It’s not about looking good, it’s about health: Parents who encourage their children to eat healthy often mean well, but there is a risk of going too far in the other direction. We don’t want to vilify certain foods and behaviors in such a way that could potentially cause some children to develop a negative body image. Everybody is different, and when talking to kids about nutrition, the emphasis should be about keeping them healthy.

Make it interactive: Find a way to involve your children in the process of preparing their meals. Some families rotate which child picks the meal depending upon the day of the week. Try different things and see what works best for you.

Sit down for meals: With the hectic schedules of modern life it can be easy to skip this one, but its importance cannot be understated. Aside from providing invaluable time for your family to connect, sitting down for meals has been shown to encourage positive eating habits.

Find the low-hanging fruit: Find the biggest sources of added sugar in your diet and try to cut some of those first. Regular soda and other sugary drinks are the biggest sugar culprits for many kids and adults. If you can cut back on sugary drinks, you will be going a long way to reduce your overall sugar intake.

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good: Being a parent isn’t easy. Becoming a part-time nutritionist on top of all the other roles could seem overwhelming. When it comes to reducing sugar intake for you and your family, it’s important to remember that any amount you cut down is a positive step. You don’t need to turn your life upside down overnight to try and meet the 25 grams per day guideline. “Just do your best to cut back on added sugar intake day by day,” Grow said.