The earth-shattering results of a nine-year-old aspiring scientist from New Jersey revealed the problem: young children are eating far too much added sugar. What my fourth grade science project attempted to explain is now made clear in my new report as an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Hooked for Life: How Weak Policies on Added Sugars Are Putting a Generation of Children at Risk. I found that young children’s excess sugar consumption is contributing to lifelong preferences for sugar-rich foods and increased risk of several chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The report reveals that the companies that make many of these foods are profiting off of children’s inherent attraction to sweet foods and beverages, and have actively lobbied against and succeeded in blocking science-based policies that would help curb sugar consumption.
I have had a sweet tooth my whole life. For me, the highlight of grocery shopping with my mom was getting the chance to grab a freshly baked free sample from the bakery. Cookies were good, but donuts were the true prize. In an effort to improve my diet and compete with my brother’s impressive science fair trophy collection, my fourth grade science project aimed to reduce sugar in my diet. It turned out to be trickier than I had imagined due to the high amounts of added sugar that were present in foods I didn’t even consider “sweets.” I combed through ingredients lists on all my favorite snacks and meals and identified hidden names for sugar including corn syrup and all of the –ose’s (fructose, sucrose, maltose, glucose and dextrose). My eyes were opened. Breakfast cereals, juices, breads, sauces, and even peanut butter were contributing to my excess sugar consumption.
Weak Policies on Added Sugars are Putting a Generation of Children at Risk
In the twenty years since completing that science project, consumer awareness about added sugars has certainly grown, and the agencies in charge of regulating food have made some progress despite industry’s best efforts to retain the status quo. The Union of Concerned Scientists celebrated a huge victory for science-based policy, transparency, and public health this May with the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) unveiling of its revisions to the Nutrition Facts label. Among other changes, the rule will require companies to include a separate line for ‘Added Sugars’ and a percent daily value for it on food labels by summer 2018. It was not an easy road to victory, thanks to pushback from the powerful food industry since the rule was first proposed, but ultimately the rule is grounded in science, as the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the World Health Organization have recommended that people get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars.
While the revised label will finally give consumers information on the amount of added sugars in food, the daily values on labels for most kids’ food will still be based on adult diets. For all intents and purposes, children ages four and up are considered adults on food labels, despite younger children having caloric intake closer to a toddler than a 40-year-old. Serving sizes and reference values for all nutrients, including added sugars, for children four and up are based on adult diets of 2,000 calories. For example, a serving of Honey Nut Cheerios, while marketed to young children, will display the daily value of added sugars based on a 50 gram reference value for adults instead of a 25 gram reference value for children under four. The American Heart Association just recently recommended that no children under 18 should consume more than 25 grams (roughly 100 calories, or 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day, and that children under age two avoid added sugars altogether. While the daily value for added sugars works well as guidance for adults, parents and caregivers should heed American Heart Association’s recommendation when purchasing foods and beverages and planning meals for children.
The Food Industry’s Campaign to Hook Kids On Sugar for Life
To food and beverage companies, children represent a lifetime of sugar consumption if companies can hook them and cultivate brand loyalty early on. The powerful food industry routinely deploys big money and conflicted science to influence public-health policies. Companies lobby key members of Congress on specific bills and give money to political campaigns. From 2010 through 2015, ten of the biggest snack food companies spent more than $90 million lobbying Congress on various pieces of legislation, including the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and the Child Nutrition Act in 2011, both of which included provisions that would reduce sugar amounts in school meals and federal food assistance programs. Industry’s robust political influence has also ensured that there are no mandatory marketing rules that it must follow. The food industry still spends almost $2 billion on advertising to children every year, on TV and the internet.
Even preschoolers aren’t safe from junk food marketing. In one study of parents of preschoolers, half reported that their children had daily exposure to fast food and cereal marketing and 36 percent had exposure to soda marketing. The onslaught of deceptive marketing is often targeted most at low-income children and children of color who are already grappling with unequal access to healthy foods. By targeting children of color disproportionately, food companies are knowingly exacerbating health disparities in the United States in order to boost their bottom lines.
How to Fight Back at the Grocery Store and Beyond
Even though I have been thinking about added sugars pretty much my whole life, the grocery store remains a struggle. Looking at the labels for each and every food package is time consuming and tedious and after about five minutes, my brain begins to shut down. Food companies don’t make the grocery store experience easy for consumers, especially parents. A walk down a store aisle for a child includes an opportunity to visit every cartoon character they’ve ever met, their visages on some of the foods with highest sugar content. Some of these foods also carry claims touting health benefits while masking high added-sugar content since the FDA has not set an upper “disqualifying” level for added sugars like it has for cholesterol, saturated fat, total fat, and sodium. Right now, the best tool for fact-checking these claims is the nutrition facts label and ingredients list–remembering to account for a child’s lower calorie intake, and to look for sneakier added sugars like fruit juice concentrate, especially in infant and toddler foods.
We Need a Sugar Fix
Our children are our future and we must do more to protect their health. Industry’s resistance to nutrition guidance and regulations that would have acted on available science on sugar consumption has led to a great stall in preventive policies. In order to help prevent added-sugar consumption and associated avoidable health problems in young children, it is imperative that the federal government improve information on and quality of foods for kids with urgency. Let’s finally put the question of “how much hidden sugar is in my food?” to rest.
Take action here to tell the FDA to add a disqualifying level for added sugars so that food companies can’t claim that high-sugar foods are “healthy” for kids and adults alike.