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Reasons to dial back the sugar in your children's diet
Children may call it heartless, but the American Heart Association has issued controversial new guidelines for how much sugar children should consume. Your child may need a smaller bag for Halloween. - photo by Jennifer Graham
Children may call it heartless, but the American Heart Association has issued stringent new guidelines on how much sugar children should consume.

In recommendations published Aug. 22 in the journal Circulation, the Heart Association said children between the ages of 2 and 18 should have no more than six teaspoons, or 25 grams, a day, and urged parents to limit their children to no more than 8 ounces of sweetened soda per week.

Children under the age of 2 should not have any food or beverage that contains added sugars, the AHA said.

Many foods and drinks even milk naturally contain sugar. The guidelines do not address those, but products that are sweetened by manufacturers who want to approve their taste and appeal.

Research has shown that human beings have a natural preference for sweet tastes from birth. But our cravings for sweets grow along with our exposure. Infants fed sweetened water want it more at age 2 than infants who were not given it, or who were given it in smaller amounts.

The Sugar Association, which represents manufacturers, was quick to protest the Heart Association's statement, noting that the U.S. dietary guidelines issued in January was not as strict. Those guidelines said added sugar should comprise no more than 10 percent of a person's total calories.

By setting goals based on teaspoons, not total calories, this means that the guidelines are the same for a preschool girl as a high-school boy, a standard the Sugar Association called "baffling."

"The AHA is recommending 6 teaspoons of added sugars for an active 16- to 18-year-old boy this is just 3 percent of his calories. Where is the science to support this? The conversation around added sugars has gotten out of control and the beliefs of individuals are trumping what the scientific evidence actually shows," the Sugar Association said in a statement.

The Heart Association, however, said that its recommended amounts are achievable and important, given that consumption of excess sugar is associated with obesity, heart disease and high blood sugar, among other conditions. And it noted that it's easier for parents to monitor their children's intake by the number of teaspoons, as opposed to the vagaries of total calories consumed.

Numerous studies have shown improvement in health markers when people cut back on sugar consumption. In one study The Washington Post reported on last year, researchers found that children's health improved in 10 days when sugar was restricted.

Even though the children did not cut back on calories or exercise more, they lost weight, and their blood pressure and insulin levels improved, Ariana Eunjung Cha reported for the Post.

Added sugars hide in unexpected places, even in "healthy" foods such as yogurt or spaghetti sauce. But for many families, most sugar they consume comes in a 12-pack or 2-liter bottle.

"The major source of added sugars in typical U.S. diets is beverages, which include soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, and flavored waters," the 2015-2020 U.S. dietary guidelines say.

A 20-ounce soda can contain up to 18 teaspoons of sugar, three times the amount the Heart Association recommends for one day, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which calls soft drinks "liquid candy."

The latest dietary guidelines urge parents to replace sugared beverages with plain water.