Kids in the United States are sweet on sugar, but a major health organization is issuing new guidelines to curb children's consumption of sugary foods and beverages.
In the first of three new recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA), a panel of health and nutrition experts suggested that children ages 2 to 18 consume no more than 6 teaspoons (30 milliliters) of added sugar a day, according to the organization's statement published today (Aug. 22) in the journal Circulation.
That amount of sugar is equal to about 100 calories, or 25 grams (0.9 ounces) of sugar.
Added sugar is considered to be any sweetener that has calories — such as table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and molasses — and is used as an ingredient in processing and preparing foods or beverages. Added sugar also includes any sugars a person adds to food or drinks at a meal. [Why Is Too Much Sugar Bad for You?]
"There is little room in a child's diet for added sugars, because they need calories from vegetables, fruits, protein sources, whole grains and dairy to grow up healthy," said Dr. Miriam Vos, the chairperson of the committee that wrote the scientific statement, and an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Added sugar can, however, be used in small amounts to improve the taste of foods that are healthy and rich in nutrition — such as whole-grain cereals, flavored milk or yogurt — to make these foods more appealing for children, she said.
But there are loads of added sugar in sugary drinks, cookies, cakes and candies, foods which have little to no nutrition value, Vos said.
Three new recommendations
Kids ages 2 to 18 typically take in two to three times the amount of sugar recommended by the new guidelines, or about 13 teaspoons on average of added sugar a day for young children, and up to about 22 teaspoons on average a day for teens, according to the most recent data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveyon the diets of American children. Moreover, even this estimate may be on the low side, because participants in dietary surveys tend to under-report their actual consumption, the scientific statement said. [Infographic: Grams of Added Sugar in Popular Foods and Drinks]
This is the first time the AHA has released its own set of recommendations for kids about added sugars. But previously, the federal government's 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americansrecommended that children get no more than 10 percent of their total calories a day from added sugar, Vos said.
Estimating 10 percent of calories may be difficult for most parents, though, because they often don't know how many calories their children eat in a day, Vos told Live Science. To simplify this for parents, the new report set a single target of 100 calories daily of added sugar, an amount that is easy for parents to understand and is healthy for all children in the 2 to 18 age range, she said.
To reach their conclusions, the expert panel reviewed the scientific evidence on added sugars and heart health in children. The experts considered how added sugar in the diet affects a child's or teen's risk for obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
The second recommendation from the AHA scientific report advised that children under age 2 have no added sugar in their diets. The panels of experts suggested that introducing added sugars in the diets of infants and toddlers may encourage them to develop a preference for sweets from an early age.
The third AHA recommendation called for children and teens to limit the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages they drink to no more than one 8-ounce (240 milliliters) beverage a week. Sugar-sweetened beverages include sodas, sports and energy drinks, sweetened teas, and fruit-flavored drinks that are not 100 percent fruit juice. [5 Health Problems Linked to Energy Drinks]
The report did not issue any guidelines on the use of non-nutritive sweeteners, such as Splenda (sucralose) or NutraSweet (aspartame), because the panel found few good-quality studies of these sweeteners' benefits or health risks in children, the report said.
Tips for limiting sugar
From a dietary standpoint, the main risks to children's health from taking in too much added sugar are that sugary foods and drinks displace healthier foods in the diet, promote weight gain, and reduce HDL "good" cholesterol and increase triglycerides, Vos said.
To help children and teens meet these new recommendations, a great first step for parents is to stop buying foods and drinks that are high in added sugar, Vos suggested. That way, there is less of it in the home, she said.
Switching to less-processed snacks like fruits, vegetables and nuts can also help reduce kids' sugar consumption, Vos said. In addition, she urged parents to read and compare nutrition labels, which currently list "total sugars," meaning all of the naturally occurring and added sugar in a product.
For most foods — except for fruits and dairy products, which are high in naturally occurring sugars — the total sugar listed on a food label is a good estimate of added sugar, Vos said. Identifying the amount of added sugar in foods will become easier in July 2018, when manufacturers will be required to list this category separately on food labels, she said.
To curb young children's consumption of sugary drinks, it's helpful to simply stop buying these beverages, which makes them less available at home and also saves money on grocery bills, Vos told Live Science. Water and low-fat milk are the two best drinks for children, she said.
For older children, sitting down and talking to them about sugary drinks, and emphasizing the benefits of drinking mostly water, are good strategies, Vos said. Plus, she urged parents to stop buying sugary drinks for themselves.
"Being a role model for your child by drinking water yourself is also very important," Vos said.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.