Australian infants and toddlers eat unhealthy amounts of sugar. This is mainly because the products marketed and sold by the processed food industry are high in sugar.
Based on the last Australian National Nutrition Surveychildren aged 2 to 3 consumed 32 grams of added sugar per day equivalent to 8 teaspoons of white sugar.
Our to research shows that the increased availability of ultra-processed foods for very young children can contribute to sugary diets.
So what can parents do?
What too much sugar does to children
The problem with too much sugar in our diet is that it provides kilojoules but not much else nutritionally.
Those extra kilojoules promote weight gain and obesity. They also greatly contribute to tooth decay in young children and often replace healthy options such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products in a child’s diet.
One over four Australian children have dental caries in their primary or permanent teeth.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that “free sugar intake” be limited to less than 10% of our total daily kilojoules for everyone. In fact, the WHO is now considering reducing this amount to 5% given the knowledge children’s sugar intake remains high.
Free sugars are those added to foods and drinks, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. Free sugars do not include natural sugars found in whole (unprocessed) fruits and vegetables or milk.
Results of the Australian National Nutrition Survey indicate that toddlers aged 2 to 3 years old consumed an average of 11% of their total energy intake from free sugar. Half of toddlers exceeded the current WHO sugar-free sugar recommendation.
Where does sugar come from?
The latest National Health investigation also tells us that sugar comes mostly from highly processed foods like baked goods, sugary drinks, chocolate and confectionery, breakfast cereals, and desserts.
These foods provide 80-90% of children’s daily added sugar intake.
But it’s not just sweets. Commercial infant and toddler foods are a major source of hidden sugars in young children’s diets. They are largely ultra-processed foods that have gone through multiple industrial processes. They contain ingredients such as added sugar, salt, fat as well as additives to make them appealing. Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients that would not be used if we made a similar product at home.
Our research shows, ultra-processed foods, especially snack foods, are common. They account for 85% of all foods marketed for toddlers in Australia (as of 2019).
These ultra-processed toddler foods often contain ingredients like fruit jellies, purees or concentrates. They may look healthy – with slogans like “made from real fruit” – but are very different from the whole fruit they come from.
Consumers might assume that these products are healthy based on the labeling and pictures of fruits on the packaging. But our body handles ultra-processed foods very differently from a whole food, which has undergone no or minimal processing.
Some toddler foods marketed as “no added sugar” or “all natural” are in some cases up to 50% fruit sugar in the form of purees or fruit concentrates.
Some toddler milks, which are also ultra-processed, contain more sugar in the same volume than a soft drink. And almost a third of salty foods for toddlers also contain fruit purees.
While this may make the food more palatable to a child, ensuring that parents will buy it again, it also ensures that children will develop a preference for sweets.
3 things parents can do
Although it is not necessary to cut out all free sugar, evidence tells us that most children consume more than is good for them. So how can we reduce this?