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About sugar in your child's diet

3-minute read

Most people love the taste of sweet foods. But too much sugar can lead to health problems. The best way to avoid excess sugar is to know about the different kinds of sugars and how much some foods and drinks contain.

Why too much sugar is a problem

All sugars added to foods provide energy, but they add no essential nutrients.

Sugar can encourage people to eat or drink too much. Then the excess energy contributes to excess weight and other health problems.

Sugar-sweetened drinks are especially likely to increase the risk of excess weight. They don’t fill you up or reduce your appetite for other foods. Sugar is also a food for the bacteria that cause holes in teeth.

Different sugars

There are many types of sugar.

Sucrose is the sugar in sugarcane and sugar beets. Small amounts are also found in some fruits and vegetables. Sucrose is made up of equal quantities of glucose and fructose. It is the main ingredient of white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, golden syrup, treacle and molasses.

Glucose is found naturally in honey and some fruits and vegetables. The starches in rice, bread, cereals and flour are broken down to glucose in your intestine.

Fructose, or fruit sugar, occurs naturally in fruits and honey. It can be made from corn starch. High-fructose corn syrup is the major sugar used in the United States. It is not common in Australia.

Lactose is the natural sugar in milk. It’s also in yoghurt, although the bacteria that thicken yoghurt digest some of the lactose. Most cheeses have very little lactose.

Galactose is another sugar found in milk. And maltose is a sugar found in malt and malted milk.

The ingredient list on food labels must include all added sugars. Food labels should list all ingredients in descending order of weight in the food. If the first ingredient is sugar, you know it is the main ingredient in the product.

As well as those sugars listed above, watch out for agave nectar, agave syrup, barley malt, cane juice, caramel, carob syrup, coconut sugar, date agave sugar, demerara, dextrin, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, jiggery, maltodextrin, maple syrup, muscovado, palm sugar, rice malt syrup and turbinado. These are all sugars.

Be wary of foods with several added sugars. Some foods, such as breakfast cereals or snack bars, may include several kinds of sugar. If they had only one kind, it would be higher in the ingredient list. Using different sugars means they don’t appear so high on the list.

How much sugar?

The natural sugars in milk and fruit (whole fruit, not juice) are not a problem.

You don’t need added sugars. They should be restricted to 10% (but preferably 5%) of your day’s energy intake.

This is equal to:

  • 6 to 12 teaspoons of sugar per day for adults
  • 2 to 8 teaspoons for 3 to 4 year-olds

This is far below the average amount of sugars in the Australian diet.

Tips to avoid added sugars

  • Drink water or milk, not soft drinks, cordials, energy drinks, sports drinks, iced tea or coffee.
  • Freeze bottles of water for children’s lunchbox or for travelling.
  • Start children on plain milk rather than flavoured.
  • Use natural yoghurt and add fresh fruit for sweetness.
  • Snack on fresh fruit or nuts rather than lollies, chocolates or biscuits.
  • Choose breakfast cereals with minimal added sugar such as porridge (rolled oats), Weetbix, Vita Brits, home-made or no-added-sugar muesli.
  • Keep cakes as a birthday treat.
  • Freeze fruits such as grapes, peeled mandarins or oranges or bananas instead of iceblocks.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2020

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