6 min read

The Facts about Hidden Sugar in Kid's Foods

What image comes to mind when you think of sugar? The white granular substance that makes things sweet, correct? We find it on the table at restaurants in little white packets and in our sugar bowl and canister at home. Let's admit it; it makes most of our tongues sing with joy! Once we've had the experience of tasting this substance, we can end up craving the sweetness more and more! A troubling fact is that being addicted to sugar is "a thing." Our taste buds learn to seek out those satisfying grains of pleasantness instead of more nutritious alternatives that our bodies need to maintain our beautiful teeth and overall health.

The Facts!

We may not realize that not all foods with added sugar are sweet, and we eat a lot more sugar than we think. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugar to nine teaspoons (36 grams) per day for men, and for women and children, only six teaspoons (25 grams). What do we usually get? They estimate that average adults get 17 teaspoons of sugar each day! For men, that’s almost twice the recommended amount, and for women, it is approximately triple the amount! Now, most of us don’t get the teaspoon from the utensil drawer and sit down with the sugar bowl, right?! No. It's the quantity added to our foods of choice that increases this amount.

As of 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required food manufacturers to update their Nutrition Facts Label to include naturally occurring and added sugars. These ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and fruit juice, may not scream added sugar when you read the label, but they are the same. Stimulating the food industry to acknowledge these sugar additives makes them less likely to include them, thus making foods healthier (1, 2). Some food companies removed or reduced these ingredients from their product, so they don't have to add them to the label.

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Whether it's natural sugar or processed sugar, your body uses it for energy. Healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products naturally contain sugar. However, hidden sugars are added during processing to make food more appealing.

It helps:
  • Preserve foods like jams and jelly
  • Enable bread to rise through fermentation
  • Balance the acidity of foods that have tomatoes and vinegar
  • Give baked items color, flavor, and texture
  • Bulk up baked foods and increase the volume of ice cream
Most of these items will not say "sugar" in the ingredients list, but rather those names that end with "-ose." We must learn to read labels and reveal these substances hidden in our food before bringing it home from the grocery store. Food and drink labels must list their ingredients by weight, beginning with the heaviest. If a type of sugar is one of the first few on the list, the product is probably very high in sugar (2).

Kids and Added Sugar: It Can Be Hidden

Let's talk about children. Young age is where sugar addictions can start, so it is important to curb it, beginning in their infancy. Babies starting solid foods shouldn't begin with sweet stuff. If we start training our child's taste buds early, they will develop habits and taste preferences for their lifetime.

Children should not have any added sugars under the age of two. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends less than six teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar each day for children older than two.

Consider this: Just eight ounces (25 grams) of orange juice can have 35-40 grams of sugar. That's how quickly our children can get more than enough sugar. Along with those listed previously, honey, sucrose, agave, maple syrup, or molasses may seem natural, but they are still added sugar and need to be eaten in moderation. There are more than 60 names for added sugar (3).

The Effects

Too much sugar has many adverse effects on children. Their mood, activity, and hyperactivity levels are affected. Children tend to be overly stimulated by foods with added sugar, and the need to work off this energy can cause them to be hyperactive. You don't want to give a child a cookie or juice when wanting him to take a nap!

Too much sugar can lead to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and many other diseases. It can also lead to tooth decay and poor nutrition in general. Eating the extra calories from the sugar added to your diet promotes these adverse effects.

Type I diabetes is usually something children have at birth while Type II diabetes is often caused by lifestyle choices, including what is eaten regularly. In both, there is too much sugar in the blood while not getting into the cells. Prolonged uncontrolled blood sugar levels can cause damage to organs in the body.

Obesity in children has become a severe problem in the United States. Approximately 20% of children aged 2 to 19 years are obese. The prevalence gets higher the older the child gets. Too many calories and insufficient activity causes obesity and leads to other complications such as heart disease. Every pound of added weight causes the heart to work harder and can be harmful over time (4).

Tooth decay is a significant concern when children consume too much sugar. The sugar interacts with the bacteria typically found in the mouth and creates acids that can break down the enamel. When the enamel breaks down, it can cause dental caries, otherwise known as cavities. Cavities can lead to other dental issues such as toothaches and abscesses if not treated. These are avoidable. Decreasing added sugar and correct oral hygiene are the key. Our dentists and staff at Jungle Roots can direct you to a healthier path to dental health.


Re-training the taste buds is the most significant battle if your child is already familiar with sugar in their diet. Small steps are the best way to overcome sugar cravings. Start with one item and remove it from the menu for a week. Make little sustainable changes, and they will continue to do them forever. If you choose to include sweets in your family’s diet, here is some information on healthier ways to eat sweets.

Here are some suggestions and alternatives to help you begin (2, 5):
  • Read The Labels! You can’t maintain the recommended amounts if you don’t know how much added sugar is in the foods you give your child.
  • Drink water or other calorie-free drinks instead of soda, sports drinks, sweet tea, or juice. Sparkling water infused with fresh fruit is another option.
  • Eat whole fruit instead of drinking its juice only. You will glean the benefits of the fruit's fiber. If you give your child fruit juice, consider diluting it with water.
  • Choose cereals with low sugar—no sugary or frosted varieties. Look for those breakfast items that are whole grain and high in fiber to counteract the adverse health effect of sugar. Unprocessed foods such as eggs, lean meat, and fresh fruit are great too!
  • Choose fresh fruit for dessert – avoid eating pie, cake, or other sweets most of the time.
  • Buy only water-packed fruit. If you have syrup-packed cans already, rinse the contents to remove the syrup.
  • Eat nutrient-rich snacks such as fresh fruits, veggies, low-fat cheeses, whole-grain crackers and bread, and choose yogurt without added sugar. These are healthier options, and the crunchiness of the fruits and veggies can clean teeth - an added benefit!
  • Look for products that have less than ten grams of sugar and more than five grams of fiber. Fiber helps your child feel more satisfied and lowers the risk for diabetes.

The Journey

A child should not be introduced to added sugar, especially under the age of two. If they never have it, they will not want it. Influencing your child's food choices from infancy can make a difference in their entire life. You can nurture their taste preferences as their parent, and they can avoid many health issues and keep their teeth healthy in the future. If your child has already developed a taste for sugar, use the suggestions in this article to turn those taste buds around! The risk for tooth decay, obesity, and related diseases is real and detrimental. Please help your child choose to be healthy by setting an example for them and showing them the benefits of wholesome, nutritious food without the added sugar!

At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.

Call Us - (480) 759-1119


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