Sweet Tooth

2014 was the year sugar became the devil. Blamed for our obesity crisis, tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease and cancers, fat escaped many of the main headlines for a change.

As a result, we are more aware of the dangers of excess sugar in our diet, particularly when it comes to fruit juice and other soft drinks but we are still along way from hitting our recommended allowance concerning sugar intake.

I have previously written a blog about the amount of sugar in our diet and wrote a piece for The Conversation about children under 3 drinking only water and milk – excess sugar in our children’s diet is something I feel very strongly about.  Parents are being advised to cut the amount of sugar in their children’s diets but I think this is far easier said than done, although a recent Netmums survey has revealed 2/3 of parents are worried about the amount of sugar in their children’s diets. It is confusing for parents when looking to pick the right foods and drinks for their children and I think the Government needs to make some big changes very soon concerning food production and marketing. We, the public need much more help to empower us to make healthier choices. We are seeing obesity, type 2 diabetes, signs of heart disease and cancers in younger and younger people so we need to protect the health of our children at the earliest possible age. Prevention is always going to be better than cure.

The World Health Organisation recommends we limit our sugar intake to 10% of our total calorie intake a day because of these negative effects that sugar has on our health. This is about 50g for an adult (~10-12 teaspoons) and much less for children, the younger they are. Back in June 2014, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (which advises on public health in England) released draft guidelines suggesting we half our intake of added sugar to just 5% of calorie intake. Although we are still waiting for the final guidelines, this lower threshold could mean no more than 5 teaspoons a day for adults and potentially no more than 1 or 2 teaspoons for children (or the equivalent of a petit filous). I am worried however, that moving the goalposts further away, when sufficient help isn’t there for parents and families, that it will make it even more difficult for us to reach these targets.

We have a very mixed relationship with food – we use it for enjoyment, function or comfort, for celebrations and with children, (although not advisable) food is often given as a reward. Sugar is basically addictive  –  even when first born, we have a natural preference for sweet things. Children are constantly exposed to sweet tastes in everyday foods and this can warp their palate, making it more and more difficult to make the transition away from sugary foods and drinks. Sugar also plays havoc with our hormones (like insulin and leptin that help tell us when we have had enough to eat). So we drink or eat sugar, then we want more……and more………hence I can eat sweets right to the bottom of the bag, no problem at all! And these are all empty calories, with no nutritional value at all.

According to the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey, children and teenagers consume around 40% more added sugar than the recommended daily allowance. Soft drinks and fruit juice are the main culprits, closely followed by cereals, cakes and biscuits. These drinks and foods make similar contributions in adults too. In their draft guidelines, SACN (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition) have suggested the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages e.g. fizzy drinks and squash should be minimised by both children and adults but I think the public need much more help to more easily identify sugary foods; it’s not just about sweets, cakes and biscuits.

UK guidelines recommend that 'added' sugars shouldn't make up more than 10 per cent of the total energy we get from food


Now I don’t have a problem with that good old saying – things in moderation but the problem with our diet these days is that we do rely too much on convenience. Children are eating what their parents are, so it is the processed ready meals, pasta sauces, breakfast cereals, yoghurts, milkshakes, snacks and condiments that children consume on a daily basis that throw them over the edge of their allowance. These days parents work long hours, our lives are stressful and chaotic, so we rely on food and drink that is quick, easy and available 24-7. Convenience food has its place but unfortunately these products  are high in sugar, (salt and fat) and too many are seriously affecting our health.

One of my biggest bugbears is the misleading labelling and packaging of foods, particularly those aimed at children.  More often than not parents are buying foods for their children that they think are healthy but when you take a closer look, they are far from healthy! Food manufacturers need to be far more honest with their marketing – they highlight the good but hide the bad. Take petit filous for instance (many other childrens yoghurts are just as bad) – their ‘goodness guarantee’ claims their little pots of fromage frais are rich in calcium and vitamin D for strong bones, they contain no artificial sweeteners, colourings or preservatives, they are gluten free and suitable for vegetarians. What they fail to tell you is they contain 11.2g sugar per 100g (that’s about 2 little pots), or just over 1 teaspoon of sugar per little pot. A better alternative is a plain, unsweetened whole yoghurt. Children often love the creamy taste and you can add flavour and some sweetness if necessary with a bit of fresh fruit.

Next up are yoghurt covered raisins. I have to say my little one loves these and so do I! But did you know it’s not even real yoghurt – if you read the small print it’s actually a sugary yoghurt-flavoured coating. So a little bag (25g) contains ~20g of sugar. That’s 4 teaspoons(!) yet they are described as “helping you meet the 5-to-9 daily fruit and vegetable servings recommended by nutrition experts”. Dried fruit is best given around meal times as it is a concentrated form of sugar and if your children really like it, limit the chocolate or yoghurt covered fruit. A little malt loaf or fruit bread is a nice alternative, as is fresh fruit, veggie sticks and dip or a low sugar flapjack.

My last example is a breakfast cereal. Let’s take Cheerios. “Deliciously crunchy Os, packed with 4 whole grains, 8 vitamins and Iron”. You’ve seen the advert, even the children are saying how good they are for you. However, do they know that a typical 30g serving with semi-skimmed milk contains over 12g of sugar; a similar amount to Frosties. That’s practically 3 teaspoons of sugar. Can you imagine giving this amount of sugar to your child straight up? The best cereals are plain porridge, weetabix or shredded wheat or plain shreddies when it comes to cereals.

Here are some more examples of sugary foods:

  • Coke – 9tsp sugar / can
  • Fruit smoothie – 12tsp / 250ml carton
  • Frozen fruit cooler – >20tsp per 500ml cup
  • Standard bar of milk chocolate – 6tsp
  • Sweet n sour ready meal – 10tsp in a pack
  • Ketchup – 1tsp per Tbsp
  • Frosties – over 2tsp per 30g serving

When looking at these figures, you can see how easy it is for children to exceed their daily allowance – we haven’t even considered drinks yet (some of the energy drinks that are so popular with children and teenagers contain over 13 teaspoons of sugar!)

Something else to bear in mind is the many different forms that sugar comes in. Sugar is not just labelled sugar on an ingredient label – it can also be called Dextrin, Dextrose, Fructose, Fruit juice concentrate, Glucose, Honey, Invert sugar, Lactose, Maltodextrin, Malt syrup, Maltose, Maple syrup, Molasses, Palm Sugar, Raw sugar, Rice Syrup, Sorghum or sorghum syrup, Sucrose, Syrup, Treacle and many others too!! No wonder we don’t always see it staring us in the face if we can’t recognise it!

How to find lower sugar options when shopping:

  1. Check the traffic light labelling on the front of the pack – red indicates unhealthy levels, amber indicates moderate levels and green shows you which are the healthier options to go for.

  2. Look at Carbohydrates (of which sugars) on the nutrition label

    high sugar = over 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
    low sugar = 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

  3. Check out the Change4Life sugar swaps campaign – there are many tips for lower sugar options to help your family cut their sugar intake and you can sign up for a free information pack. Initial results from families involved have found they cut back on their sugar intake by 41%!

We need to press the UK Government to be as aggressive on sugary foods and drinks as they have been on tobacco.  At the weekend Jamie Oliver was quoted saying “sugar is “the next tobacco” and it should be taxed because of its health risks”

I like this idea in principle, it could work but one of the problems here is that processed food is so much (~3 times) cheaper than unprocessed food. Particularly when it comes to very cheap, sugary drinks a sugar tax really might not make that much of a difference. It also probably won’t help tackle health problems across the entire population either although younger adults might see the most benefits.  What I would love to see is the Government  making significant rulings on permitted levels of sugar in certain foods, ban children from buying energy drinks, continue to improve food labelling and provide effective health information on food packaging too. I wonder what 2015 will bring.


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