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Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar

Kids love sugary foods. Keeping an eye on your child’s eating habits is important if you want to maintain a nutritious, balanced diet.

Are you worried about the sugar in your child’s diet? Maybe you’re wondering if you should limit how much natural sugar they eat too?

It can be confusing to track the different types of sugar in the foods kids eat and manage the overall balance. In this article, we’ll review the difference between added sugar and natural sugar along with some tips for keeping sugary foods in your child’s diet in check.

a bowl of cereal with sugar and a bowl of sliced banana in added sugar vs. natural sugar

Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar

First, let’s start with the difference between added sugar and natural sugar.

Foods with natural sugars grow as nature intended with lactose (milk) and fructose (fruit) already included. In other words, these sugars are not added, they are already there.

Added sugar is the stuff you find in desserts, cookies, pies, candy, soda, other sugary beverages, flavored yogurt, sweetened cereals, and yes, even pasta sauce.

Think of it this way: when sugar is ADDED to a food product, it’s, well, added sugar.

Is Natural Sugar Good for You?

This is a tricky question. Sugar is not “good for you”. You don’t need sugar the way you need the nutrients protein and carbohydrates, so there are no daily requirements for sugar.

But, foods with naturally occurring sugars include other important nutrients your child needs.

Fortified milk is a valuable source of calcium, vitamin D and potassium.

Yes, fruit is a source of natural sugar. You also get loads of fiber and the antioxidant benefits of phyto chemicals in fruits.

Fruit drinks or fruit-flavored drinks generally have sugars included as part of the recipe. They aren’t the same as 100% fruit juice, which doesn’t have any added sugar.

Even 100% fruit juice without added sugar has a lot more sugar than one piece of whole fruit. It takes several pieces of fruit just to make 4oz of fruit juice. Plus, you lose the fiber.

So, stick to whole fruits for your child as much as possible.

Common Foods with Naturally Occurring Sugars

Many foods have natural sugars. Nature made them this way. Here are some of them:

  • Yogurt (plain) – yogurt with fruit or drinkable yogurts have added sugars.
  • Fruit
  • Milk and Milk products (with no sugar added)
  • Honey
  • 100% maple syrup

Fun fact: Lactose is the sugar that’s in milk. But, lactose-free milk still has sugar in it. Lactose isn’t actually removed in lactose-free milk. The enzyme that digests lactose, called lactase, is added to regular milk to break lactose down so it’s easier for you to digest. And ultra-filtered milk, like Fairlife, has even less!

Simplifying Added Sugar Recommendations

Did you know that kids between the ages 2 to 13 exceed the recommended limit of 10% added sugar by 57% – 80% (depending on age group and gender)?

I believe getting a handle on added sugar in your child’s diet is one key to healthy eating. The good news is we have the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to guide us.

added sugar limits for kids chart

Let’s start with the numbers.

While there’s no minimum amount of sugar you should eat, the guidelines provide a recommended daily limit.

First, though, I have a couple of qualifiers that I want to state upfront.

The numbers give you a frame of reference; they are not intended to be obsessed about, nor are they targets you will be able to meet each and every day.

Your child’s intake will vary.

The overall balance, or average intake over the course of a week, for example, is what matters most.

Second, the sugar limits (10% or less) target ADDED sugar. That’s the total target for the whole day.

The new nutrition facts label shows how many added sugars a product contains. In the following sample, you can see there’s 10g of added sugars (20% of the daily value) in just one serving of this food

the new nutrition facts label compared to the old nutrition facts panel

Third, these sugar limits do not apply to foods that NATURALLY contain sugar, like milk, unsweetened milk products, and fruit. A medium apple has about 14g of sugar and there’s about 12g in one cup of low-fat milk. That’s all naturally occurring sugar.

Your child should be eating 1 to 1-½ cups of fruit and about 2-3 cups of dairy each day to get all the nutrients they need.

So, don’t worry about sugar in these foods

Last, the numbers are based on the estimated calorie needs for the average child who is moderately active, and are noted by age. As you can see, these needs change as children grow.

They can also change based on activity level; sedentary children will need fewer calories and active children will need more. These are general population recommendations, so use this as a guide to get you started.

Most likely, your child will not vary greatly from these age-related goals.

To put this in perspective, I have compiled some common foods kids tend to eat, just to give you a quick comparison:

added sugar in common foods chart

How To Cut Back on Added Sugar in Your Child’s Diet?

If you find there’s too much sugar in your family’s diet, here are some ways to keep the added sugar in check:

  1. Added sugar comes in obvious forms and not so obvious forms, like in spaghetti sauce or flavored yogurt. You should keep track of both.
  2. A little bit of sugar goes a long way to calming a child’s potential obsession with it. If you take sugar out of the diet entirely, you might find yourself with a child who is overly focused or reactive to sugary foods.
  3. I suggest you look at your usual foods and get a read on which ones tend to be high in added sugar. Take a quick diet assessment of your child’s usual intake of sugar. Ideally, you’ll want to be hitting the 90-10 Rule balance of sweets and treats. If you need to cut back, start with some of these suggestions. Remember, it’s the average intake over time that matters. A day of sugar indulgence happens. What you don’t want is that to become an everyday event.
  4. You must allow your child to enjoy sweets when he or she has them. No guilt trip. Period. Read again: Must. Enjoy.
  5. Don’t forget that our little ones are human, and if they taste sugar, see sugar, and smell sugar, they will probably like sugar and want it. And if they get it often enough, they may also prefer it.

I’ve got a related podcast episode on this topic called Striking the Sugar Balance in Kids–check it out!

So, how are your kids doing with sugar?

Got a child with ADHD? View our Food & ADHD training.

References:

The New and Improved Nutrition Facts Label – Key Changes

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.

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