Excessive sugar consumption in UK toddlers, study flags
02 May 2022 --- A team of UK-based researchers are calling on government and industry alike to take action in slashing sugar intake in toddlers.
Reformulating products and clearer nutrition information on food packaging could go a long way in reaping results, they flag, after a study reveals at least 80% of seven year old's exceeded the recommended limit of 10% of daily calories from free sugars.
“Some food products suggest ‘no added sugar’ on packaging but contain high levels of naturally occurring free sugar from fruit concentrates in their recipes, making it misleading and unhelpful to consumers” lead researcher, Lisa Heggie, University College London, tells NutritionInsight.
“We need to make sure that children are encouraged to drink water instead of beverages high in free sugar to reduce the risk of childhood obesity and to improve child dental health, and choose foods that don’t contain added sugars like fresh fruits and vegetables.”
The findings suggest that children in the UK start consuming free sugars (those added to foods and drinks and those occurring naturally in fruit juices, honey and syrups) at a very young age, and that many toddlers’ sugar intake exceeds the maximum recommended amount for children aged four and above.
Numbers don’t sweeten the blow
This study looked at 2,336 children from the UK, making it the largest dietary dataset of toddlers. The findings are being presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity in Maastricht, Netherlands.
According to the World Health Organization’s recommendations, free sugars should not make up more than 10% (12 teaspoons) of daily calories, with 5% as the recommended target for optimal health. The maximum daily sugar intake for seven to ten-year-old's is 50 g or 12 teaspoons.
Nonetheless, only 16% of toddlers aged 21 months, and less than 2% of seven year olds, met the recommended intake of free sugars, which is no more than 10% of the total daily calories.
On average, the UK’s toddlers intake more than six teaspoons (25.6 g) of free sugar a day, and by the age of seven, the amount rises to 18 teaspoons (57.4 g).
Hidden in packaging
The excessive sugar intake is “largely due to the high amounts of added sugar in modern diets,” Heggie adds.
The researchers note that most of the sugar intake for toddlers comes from pure fruit juices, yogurts and fromage frais, whereas for children, the key sugar sources are pure fruit juices, chocolate-based confectionery, cakes and pastries.
“Much of children’s daily sugar intake is hidden in packaged and ultra-processed foods, many of which are marketed as healthy,” highlights the researchers.
For example, a standard serving of breakfast cereal can contain up to 13 g of free sugars, while a portion of yogurt can provide up to 15 g of sugars.
A recent study also revealed that front-of-pack claims and products’ promotional messages could mislead parents about the product’s nutritional benefits for their children.
Obese children – obese adults
Children who have obesity are more likely to remain obese also in the adulthood, with the associated risk of several serious health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a variety of cancers. However, the reduction of childhood obesity levels in the UK have had limited results. Heggie also points to evidence linking sugar intake with dental health issues.
Heggie argues that the authorities and producers should work on reformulating products that are the primary sources of added sugar in children’s diets, including yogurts, juice drinks and all kinds of sweets.
“One approach the government advises is for the manufacturers to reduce the portion size of single-serve products, which would therefore reduce the total energy and free sugar consumed from one serving.”
Additionally, more research needs to be done on the link between free sugar intake during toddlerhood and childhood and the risk of obesity in later life. Parents were asked to complete three-day eating diaries for 2,336 children when they were toddlers (21 months old) and again when they were seven years old.
Researchers calculated the average daily intake of energy and counted any free sugars from foods and beverages. The study did not include zero-calorie sweeteners or the naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables, and dairy.
This study was conducted as part of SWEET, a European Commission Horizon 2020 funded research program, involving 29 research, consumer and industry partners. SWEET investigates the long-term benefits and risks of dietary sweeteners in the context of public health and safety, obesity and sustainability.
Recently the European Food Safety Authority reported that, in general, most European populations exceed the recommended added sugar intake.
Across the UK, campaigners have long called for the government to take action in slashing sugar content across products. Nonetheless, reformulation attempts have been “floundering” according to campaigners, while the government’s pledge to publish a report on the fight against sugar has been delayed by a year, much to the ire of campaign groups.
Meanwhile, the WHO has chosen the UK to lead a new Sugar and Calorie Reduction Network to reduce sugar and calorie intake across Europe. Work will take place with the food and drink industry to reduce products high in fat, salt and sugar, helping to tackle global rates of obesity.
By Ilze Vitola
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