New Warning Labels Tell Truth About Sugar

New Warning Labels Tell Truth About Sugar

Labels on sugar-sweetened drinks may help parents buy less.

If it seems like your children are always begging for a lollipop or coming home from school with a sweet treat, it’s probably because they are. American children devour a staggering amount of sugar. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), teens and children consume over 320 calories from added sugar each day—that’s roughly 20 teaspoons!

Research shows that humans are naturally drawn to sweet tastes, says Carla Laos, MD, a pediatrician at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center in Texas. Most children (and many adults) would choose sugary-foods for every meal, if given the choice, she says.

But, eating too much sugar is linked to a slew of health problems. “Calories that come from sugar will quickly add up and, over time, lead to weight gain and tooth decay,” says Dr. Laos. It's important for parents to set limits and teach moderation, she says.

The AHA recommends that kids and teens have no more than 6 teaspoons, or about 100 calories, of added sugar per day. Children and adolescents should also limit sugar-sweetened beverages like soda to just 8 ounces a week or less. The AHA also recommends that kids under the age of two avoid added sugars all together. 

As all parents know, this advice is easier said than done.

What may be more realistic is to follow the advice of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which recommends instead of obsessing over grams and teaspoons, focus on consuming less added sugar by limiting products that contain it.

New sugar warning labels may make doing this much easier.

Sugar Warning Labels
In California and New York, lawmakers are working to pass bills that will require beverage manufacturers to warn consumers of the health risks associated with drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. For example, a label may say: “SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

And results of a study published in Pediatrics shows that this type of warning label works. In the study, parents were less likely to buy sugary beverages for their children as a result.

The study proves parents are more aware than ever of the dangers of eating too much sugar -- and that is a good thing, says Laos. These warnings will help parents make better choices for their kids, she says.

Currently, nutrition labels list how much sugar a product contains. But most people don’t take the time to read food labels and even if they do, the amount of sugar listed takes into account both added and natural sugars, so it can be hard to know which foods to avoid. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed adding added sugar to nutrition labels.

Natural sugars are sugars that are a part of the food or beverage naturally, or from the beginning. Dairy products and fruits have natural sugars and other nutrients. Added sugars are sugars and syrups, such as high fructose corn syrup, that are added to foods and beverages during preparation. They are high in calories and have zero nutrients. Added sugar is what we need to eat less of.

Most everyone knows that sodas are loaded with added sugar, but many unsuspecting foods have lots of added sugar too, such as condiments like ketchup, barbeque sauce and some salad dressings and granola bars and peanut butter.

Teaching kids to make better choices
The human body needs sugar to function -- it provides fuel for cells and energy -- so you don’t have to cut all sugar out of your child’s diet. But it’s best to get sugar from natural sources and eat it in moderation.

If you encourage your children to make healthy choices today, they are more likely to have healthy habits as adults, and that’s one of the reasons monitoring your child’s sugar intake is so important, says Laos.

“We're trying to teach and guide parents into understanding that the choices that they make for their children today are going to benefit them five, ten, twenty years from now,” says Laos.

We’re not suggesting you do away with household sugars all together, but monitoring how much is available to your kids will help them stay healthy now -- and in the future, she says.

Other ways to satisfy your child’s sweet tooth
Laos recommends satisfying your child’s sweet tooth with healthier alternatives, such as giving them naturally sweetened foods like bananas, apples, blueberries and grapes. Natural honey is a good sweetener substitute, too. And because they aren’t always going to choose fruit -- let them splurge on healthier sweets such as dark chocolate, every now and then.

See More from Dr. Laos:
How can I make sure my kids have healthy snacks?

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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