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Parents Guide: Children, Sugar and Snacking

Having a small snack between meals is a regular occurrence for children. But do you know how much sugar content is in the snacks you give your children?

The issue of children's sugar intake is one that is well publicised. This year has already seen many calls for reducing the amount of sugar children consume in the media; including a campaign from celebrity chef and father of five, Jamie Oliver, on banning sales of energy drinks to children. 

In this special feature, we explore the state of snacking and the challenges parents face in providing healthy snacks for their children.

A staggering 25% of children aged 2-15 are classified as overweight or obese. This is a serious and growing problem, which the World Health Organisation notes is a "double burden" due to health issues and obesity in childhood increasing the same risks in adulthood.

However it can be difficult to provide children, particularly young children, with snacks between meals that are both palatable and healthy.  A recent study by Public Health England found that primary-aged children have up to 3 sugary snacks per day.

It goes without saying, that most parents are aware of the risks that being overweight or obese give their children. No parent seeks to let their children become overweight or are apathetic to it. The difficulty for parents lies in finding healthy alternatives to snacks, particularly for younger children or fussy eaters.

"Snacks are important for young children since they can only eat small amounts of food at a time, and can’t wait many hours between meals."

The problem is not with snacking itself but rather with the content of those snacks. Fat and sugar content of foods consumed at snack times are a serious cause of concern for children and parents.

The State of Snacking

Current World Health Organisation advice suggests that around 5% of our daily calories should come from sugars. For a boy aged 10, that works out to about 100 calories a day and slightly less for a girl of the same age. 1g of sugar has about 4 calories, so children of this age should have no more than 25g of sugar per day. One can of Coca-Cola has about 10.6g/42kCal (sugar calories only), or almost half the total a child should have per day. When you add in a fun-size Mars bar at 8.g/32kCal you are rapidly approaching the daily total with just a small snack.

Additionally, many children start their day off with a sharp intake of sugar from popular breakfast cereals.

- Frosties (11g/44kCal per bowl from sugar only)
- Coco Pops (10.5g/42kCal from sugar only)
- Cheerios (6.2g/24.8kCal from sugar only)

This takes up a significant chunk of a child’s daily sugar amount. It quickly adds up when combined with a mid-morning and after school snack. That's without including any sugars in their lunch of dinner. It is easy to see how parents can accidentally allow children to go over their daily limits in this way.

The most deceptive are those snacks that seem to be marketed as healthy. Such as yogurts, fruit juices and cereal bars. At first glance seem like easy and healthy alternatives to candy or fizzy drinks. In reality, these snacks can be just as full of sugar.

- One pot of Original Strawberry flavour Yoplait, contains 18g of sugar (72kCal)
- A 156g Tracker Peanut bar, there is 7.3g (29.2kCal)
- A 200ml carton of Apple Juice has 20.7g (82.8kCal)

Ironically, this can mean that a well-intentioned parent could swap their child’s Coke and Mars bar with a yogurt and apple juice and increase their sugar intake.

These figures are not as simple as they initially seem. There are many types of sugar, broadly categorised into Brown, White and Liquid. There is also a difference between naturally occurring sugars (such as Fructose in fruit) and added sugar. Additionally, there is a massive range of words, phrases and terms associated with sugar in food. Even the most conscientious and health-conscious parents can struggle telling dextrose for lactose, or simple and complex carbohydrates.

Different types of sugar affect bodies differently. For example, glucose is the most basic form of sugar, is essential for energy in the body. All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose by the body to provide energy to cells. It is therefore the epitome of “simple” sugars. Beyond this, there are natural sugars and added sugars. While too much of either can bring problems, the primary concern for parents should be the amount of added sugars, such as sucrose.

“Check for ingredients ending in "ose" — that's the chemical name for many types of sugar, such as fructose, glucose, maltose and dextrose.”

The good news is that levels of sugar consumption per capita in the UK are falling.  In 2014 the Institute of Economic Affairs noted that per capita consumption had fallen by 16% between 1992 and 2014. Additionally, some companies have begun to reduce the total amount of sugars they add to their products. For example Kellogg’s announced in November of 2017 that it would cut the sugar added to Coco Pops, Rice Krispies, and Rice Krispies Multi-Grain Shapes by up to 40%.

Despite this, levels of obesity and childhood obesity have been rising. Dealing with weight issues in children is not a one-step solution – it involves increasing exercise, education and diet. Parents can help their children by choosing healthy and less sugary snacks for them. Snacks are not necessarily getting more sugary, but increasingly parents feel unable to determine what foods have “the right amount” of sugar.

"Our child just doesn't like healthy food."
"We're tired of fighting with the kids at meal times about eating their vegetables."
"I want to make sure they eat something!"
"Just let them have sweets, you have to let them enjoy their childhood."
"I like making my children happy with treats."
"I've tried to try and get my child to eat fruit and veg, I don't know what else to do."

Whilst somewhat flippant, these are some common reasons why parents give their children snacks. It is not that parents think they are healthier; it is that they struggle to find a compromise solution that works for them. It isn’t that they think it is good to give children excessive amount of sugary snacks; it is that some snacks that are marketed as “healthy” contain excessive sugars.

Research conducted on behalf of Yazoo in 2017 found that while 77% of parents felt guilty about the amount of sugary snacks they provided to their children, British parents give their children unhealthy snacks 21 times a week on average. So-called “pester power”, or children asking for such items can have a dramatic impact on parents. This is particularly true for parents who are stressed or time-limited in other ways, such as long working hours or during times of emotional distress such as parental separation.

Other factors include parents having less time to prepare or cook healthy snacks. In addition, the range of snacks available and children's desire for them creates an attractive solution. It can also be difficult for parents to seek support with healthy alternatives due to being fearful of being judged for the food choices they make.

31% of parents underestimate their child's weight

In a 2008 study, 75% of parents underestimated the size of an overweight child, while 50% underestimated the size of an obese child. Even more surprising is that a similar study found that healthcare professionals had nearly the same difficulty. Parents therefore should not feel shame for not recognising the issue sooner; instead, they should be more aware that of the issue, its causes and most crucially of support that is available to counteract it.


What to do

The issue of helping your children to snack healthier, and to reduce sugar intake can be confronting. However, there are a few suggestions that parents can implement in order to make a start towards improving the quality of the snacks they provide.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that parents simply do not keep unhealthy snacks in the house. Children as less likely to ask for such items if they are not freely available – and via this solution, snacks and desserts that are unhealthy become special treats rather than daily food.

The NHS’s Change4life campaign notes that sugary drinks are often the biggest individual source of added sugars to children’s diets. As such, they suggest a swap to diet versions, no added-sugars versions (such as dilutes), low-fat milk or water.

New South Wales in Australia’s government makes the suggestion that parents ought to set limits on the number of sugary snacks for children. They also state that parents should explain why these limits are being imposed, and Parenting NI always suggests communication is important.

Any changes, particularly if they are significant or if your children are older should involve the children. Such strategies, where the parent involves the child and explains the reasons why they are doing what they are doing are more likely to succeed.

It is never too early or too late to improve the nutritional value of the snacks provided to your children. If you need help or support, or want further information regarding how to improve, reach out to one of the many organisations below who can assist you.