Today’s guest bloggers are Julie A. Mennella, PhD, Monell Chemical Senses Center and Samuel S. Gidding, MD, Nemours Cardiac Center, A. I. DuPont Hospital for Children.
Did you ever wonder why children typically like candy more than broccoli? Why they like to eat foods and drink beverages rich in added sugars? Added sugars, not the sugars found in fruits, are sweeteners that have calories that are added to prepared foods and beverages. From the age of two, on any given day, an American is more likely to eat a processed sweet than a fruit or vegetable. Children in the United States typically take in two to three times the recommended amount of added sugar which is less than six teaspoons a day. We have a problem with added sugars!
What has science taught us about understanding this problem? Our taste system evolved to prefer energy-rich foods that taste sweet and reject potential poisons, which often taste bitter. Through research, we now know that the preference for the taste of sweet is inborn, attracting newborns to the predominant taste quality of what once was their only first food—their mother’s milk. The preference for sweet tastes is heightened throughout all of childhood, attracting children to sources of calories (typically fruits rich in carbohydrates), especially when they are growing. The preferred amount of sweetness is called the bliss point. The bliss point for sweetness for adults is about seven teaspoons in eight ounces of water which is about the level of sweetness in a cola. For children, the bliss point requires more sugar, five more teaspoons for a total of 12 teaspoons in an eight ounce glass of water!
But that’s not the only reason children like sweets. For babies and older children, tasting something sweet provides pleasure and blunts pain. I am sure you have heard of the Mary Poppins song “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine goes down’. Well, it’s true! Another reason children are attracted to foods with added sugars is because sugars get rid of the bad tastes.
This “sweet” attraction served children well in a feast-or-famine setting, attracting them to energy rich foods like breast milk and fruits in the era before mass produced food. Today it makes them vulnerable to food environments abundant in processed foods rich in added sugars or sugar substitutes (chemicals that produce sweet taste with little or no calories). These processed foods become preferred compared to healthy sweet foods like fruits. In other words, there is a mismatch between children’s biology and the food environment. Food is everywhere, not scarce—it is inexpensive, good and sweet tasting, and served in large portions. Children’s natural taste predispositions draw them to these processed foods that taste sweet.
Eating a diet rich in added sugar affects a child's or teen's risk for obesity, and subsequent high blood pressure, diabetes, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Eating less of foods without additional nutrients or fiber, like fruits, vegetables, and beans does not help either.
So what can you as concerned parents do, now that you are aware of why your child is so drawn to sweets? First, children under age 2 should have no added sugar (or artificial sweeteners) in their diets. Second, there is no reason to have a sweetened beverage at every meal. Provide water or low fat-milk instead. These strategies may help them to learn to like foods that taste less sweet. Identifying how much added sugar is in the foods and beverages you buy will be easier come July 2018, when manufacturers will be required to list this on food labels.
Children should drink no more than one eight-ounce sweetened 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. Third, children learn from an early age and there is no better teacher or role model than their parents. Stop buying foods and drinks that are high in added sugar for not just your children but the whole family. By drinking water or low-fat milk and offering sweet-tasting fruits as desserts, the whole family benefits!