‘It’s everywhere in the food system’: Added sugar found in the diets of many babies, toddlers

Meal time at Alynn Casgrain’s home requires some co-ordination.

While her 11-month-old twin boys, Sam and Jake, wait patiently in their high chairs, four-year-old big sister Noelle cuts the vegetables for a pizza the whole family will soon be eating.

Casgrain and her husband, David Upper, believe their children should eat the same things they eat. That’s because the Toronto mom was surprised by the added sugars she found in products designed for infants and toddlers.

“Those yogurt drinks were shocking. Low fat, all sugar,” said Casgrain.

A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics backs that up. It found that nearly 61 per cent of infants (6-11 months) and 98 per cent of toddlers (12-23 months) consumed added sugars as part of an average daily diet.

The added sugars were mainly found in flavoured yogurts and fruit drinks.

“We wanted to understand what the consumption of added sugars were among infants and toddlers. It’s a group that’s not very well studied, so we wanted to add to the research base,” said lead investigator Kirsten Herrick, with the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Nutrition experts warn us to try to limit our intake of added sugars, but they are everywhere: in breakfast cereals, baked goods, even yogurt and pasta sauces. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Herrick’s team analyzed data from 1,211 young children. They found that infants consumed about one teaspoon of added sugars daily; toddlers consumed about six teaspoons.

Experts, including the World Health Organization, say children should consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar daily — an amount equal to about 25 grams.

“What was surprising was how early added sugar consumption started and how quickly it increased,” she said.

‘Kids eat like we do’

Herrick describes added sugars as an extra amount of sweetener that’s added to any food product. It could be table sugar, honey, maple syrup or fruit concentrate. And it’s “everywhere in the food system,” she said, from fruit drinks and baked goods, to yogurts.

Jess Haines, an associate professor of applied nutrition at the University of Guelph, isn’t surprised by the findings.

“Kids eat like we do. And adults, both in the U.S and Canada, we eat a fair bit of sugar,” she said.

Haines said the university came to similar conclusions in its long-term Guelph Family Health Study, where researchers looked at various routines of children between 18 months and five years of age. When it came to diet, it found that 54 per cent of them exceeded the six teaspoons of sugar per day.

Jess Haines is an associate professor of applied nutrition at the University of Guelph. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Haines says that all this added sugar can have long-term health effects, starting with cavities.

“We also see that when kids have higher intakes of sugar that’s sustained over their lifetime, we can see an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes later in life.”

As a parent herself, Haines understands that many babies and toddlers can be picky eaters. She also knows the time constraints many mothers and fathers face during the day, so she tries to recommend solutions that involve re-imagining what a snack can look like.

“Think of snacks, really, as mini-meals. Why not take some of the foods that you’ve had for either breakfast or lunch, make it smaller and they can have a snack like that during the day,” she said.

Alynn Casgrain agrees. She and her husband try to control the added sugar intake of their children, particularly at home, by making much of their food from scratch.

Casgrain hopes this will lay the groundwork for healthy eating decisions later in life — but she knows it won’t be easy.

“You have to be realistic about the fact that wherever they go, whether they’re going to see friends or grandparents or when they get older and make their own decisions, there’s going to be sweet stuff in front of them.”

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