Most American Toddlers Eat More Than the Recommended Sugar Intake for Adults, Study Shows

Most toddlers in the U.S. eat more sugar every day than is recommended for adults, according to a study.

A representative study of toddlers showed that 99% of children aged between 19 to 23 months eat over seven teaspoons of added sugar each day on average. That is the equivalent of a Snickers. Children were also found to consume added sugar before the age of one.

The study comes at a time when one in six children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese. And as children grow up, their preference for unhealthy foods is likely influenced by a sugar-filled diet in early life, according to researchers.

As well as causing obesity, eating excess sugar can lead to dental problems and is linked to asthma and risk factors of cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure.

Kirsten Herrick, the lead author of the study and a nutritional epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement that this is the first time the body has looked at how much added sugar children below the age of two eat. She presented the findings on Sunday 10 June at Nutrition 2018, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition held in Boston.

The body processes all types of sugars in the same way, but those added to food are believed to be more harmful. Getty Images

The body processes sugars from foods such as fruits and chocolates in the same way—but the processed sugars in products like the latter are believed to be worse for our health. That's because they don't have the same nutritional value, such as vitamins and fiber, as unprocessed foods and contain high levels of calories.

To arrive at her findings, Herrick assessed data from more than 800 infants and toddlers, aged between six and 23 months old, who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2011 and 2014. Since 1960, around 190,000 people have taken part in the study in total.

The parents of the study participants were asked to note down everything their child ate in a 24-hour period. To measure the consumption of added sugar, the researchers documented foods containing cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and other forms of sugar. Zero-calorie sweeteners and sugars that are present naturally in foods were not counted.

The data revealed that 85% of the children involved in the study ate added sugar on any given day, and the amount they consumed crept up as they aged. Between the ages of six to 11 months, just over 60% of babies ate added sugar on a given day, at around under one teaspoon on average. By the age of 12 to 18-months, this figure rose to 98%—at around 5.5 teaspoons. By 19 to 23 months, 99% of children ate an average of over seven teaspoons of added sugar on a given day.

The demographic that ate the most sugar were non-Hispanic black children aged between 12 to 23 months, while white children ate the least. There was no difference for children aged between six to 11 months.

Herrick said the findings could have implications for the upcoming revision of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The latest nutritional guidelines for the U.S., which were updated in 2015 and will be reviewed in 2020, do not give recommendations for children under the age of two. But the advice for 2020 to 2025 will offer parents and carers tips on how to feed toddlers.

Those aged between two to 19 years old as well as adult women should not eat more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day, rising to nine for men. Regardless of the recommendations, most people in the U.S. eat more than this limit, research shows.

In the future, researchers will investigate the specific foods children consume their added sugar. Past studies have pointed towards breakfast cereals, cakes and desserts, sugary drinks, yogurt and candy as the biggest culprits.

Herrick said the best way to cut sugar from the diets of children and adults is to "choose foods that you know don't have them, like fresh fruits and vegetables."