Strict new guidelines for added sugar intake issued by the American Heart Association might feel like taking candy from a baby, but medical reports show that children in the U.S. have harmful amounts in their diets, and that needs to change. New guidelines for sugar intake issued for U.S. kids by the AHA state that children ages 2 to 18 should consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day. On average, children in the U.S. consume 2 to 3 times that amount daily.
But what does 6 teaspoons look like? To compare, one can of regular Coke has about 10 teaspoons of sugar in it, and sugary drinks like sodas and juice contribute to the high sugar intake of kids that the AHA is trying to tamper down. The guidelines also recommend that children younger than 2 years have no added sugar in their diet at all.
The 6 teaspoon limit is the equivalent of 100 calories (or, one plain Hershey's chocolate bar). The AHA believes that this guideline is reasonable, but it recognizes science still doesn't wholly agree on just how much sugar is safe — as it laid out in its statement in the AHA's journal, Circulation:
There has been a lack of clarity and consensus regarding how much added sugar is considered safe for children, so sugars remain a commonly added ingredient in foods and drinks, and overall consumption by children remains high – the typical American child consumes about triple the recommended amount of added sugars.
In fact, the AHA's recommendation is at odds with another group that regularly issues guidelines: the FDA. In fact, the AHA's new sugar limits, last updated in January of this year, are half the FDA's. So, how do you know which guidelines to listen to?
Many foods have sugar in its natural form, like the lactose found in milk, which is just a regular part of our diet. The AHA guidelines are warning parents about added sugars, in the form of sucrose. Sugars are a kind of carbohydrate, and not all sugars are created equal. The ones that occur naturally in our food, like lactose or fructose (which is found in fruit) help our bodies make the energy it needs throughout the day.
Added sugars, however, are put into processed food for a wide variety of reasons: like making food taste better, making it last longer on the shelves, or giving it a more delectable texture or color. Adding sugar to food helps to sop up the extra moisture, which keeps bacteria from growing. It's also a fundamental chemical component to making bread — because yeast reacts with sugar, causing it to rise.
How much sugar we need, or how much we need of any other nutrient in our diets, is determined by our overall caloric needs for a single day. Even though very small children can be incredibly active, they don't have extremely high caloric needs — generally around 1,200 calories per day is enough — and the AHA's guidelines remind parents that the majority of those calories shouldn't come from added sugars, which don't provide any of those other nutrients that humans need, like protein and fat.
The panel of experts at the AHA who worked on these guidelines did admit, however, that kids should absolutely be allowed to be kids — and that means sometimes, indulging a sweet tooth is totally fine. Birthday cake is a valid reason to have — in moderation — a day when added sugars exceed the recommendation.
And the panel said that, in day to day life, the place to use those added sugars ideally shouldn't be with empty calories, like soda or candy. Instead, experts advise parents to use added sugar to make healthy foods — like vegetables or whole grain cereals — more appealing to kids.