With all of the news of school gun violence, bullying and world conflict, it seems strange to think that one of the more insidious killers among us is so ubiquitous we rarely pause to think of its effects. For children, early exposure to large quantities of sugar is leading to a cascade of health issues including metabolic syndrome. As a result, they are at increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Throughout much of the '80s and '90s, Americans were bombarded with the notion that "low-fat" was best for our health. The mantra "a calorie is a calorie" played loudly against the backdrop of increasing numbers of processed and convenience foods. In that era, the idea was it didn't matter if you were eating an orange or a low-fat cookie in terms of calorie count. But in order to reduce the amount of fat in products, the quantity of sugars, in various forms, increased exponentially so that foods remained palatable and desired.
Our sense of sweetness has been distorted by all of the hidden sugars added to processed foods. Take ketchup, for instance; one serving of ketchup contains 4 grams of sugar. Since 4 grams is equivalent to one teaspoon, every serving of ketchup contains one teaspoon of sugar. And the serving size of ketchup is quite small - 1 tablespoon! The hidden sugars extend to spaghetti sauce, yogurt and especially peanut butter.
Processed foods have become the norm. Not only do you buy cereal in boxes, you can buy a plastic bowl of ready-packaged cereal with milk for those morning breakfasts on the run. Fast, convenient and cheap, processed foods seem to make our days easier (think Lunchables). Cereals and high-sugar snack foods are heavily marketed to children and teens through television and Internet advertising. The serving size listed on a cereal box is often misleading. Have children measure out the actual amount in one serving size into a bowl. Then have children scoop-out teaspoons of sugar in front of the bowl to have a visual of the actual amount of sugar per serving. The average child pours him or herself at least two servings of every cereal with every meal.
The American Heart Association recommends that the average American woman eat just 24 grams of sugar a day (6 teaspoons). As a point of reference, one 20-ounce bottle of Coke contains 75 grams of sugar (17 teaspoons), almost three times the daily allowance.
The patterns for sugar consumption as adults are set very early in childhood. Most children get their greatest sugar ingestion from beverages - soda, fruit juices and energy drinks. We often think fruit juice must be a healthier alternative because most of the sugar is derived naturally; but, stripped of its fiber in the whole fruit form, the remaining fructose and glucose in juice is recognized by the body as sugar. Additionally, without the fiber, the sugar hits the liver much faster than if you are eating fruit in its natural state. In the summer, active children and teens drink an average of 3-4 processed beverages a day. One soda, two fruit juices and one energy drink have as much sugar as 34 cookies.
We pay a large price for processed food convenience, not only with our health, but also in our pocketbook. Consider this: Over a month, a family of five (assuming three children) can spend more than $60 on box cereal alone. Throw in processed white bagels, two boxes of Pop Tarts, and two bottles of orange juice, and the breakfast price tag reaches $85. Four dozen eggs, two large boxes of raw oatmeal, and some fresh fruit, with a cost of approximately $30, would feed that same family of five for a month with tremendous health benefits.
If knowledge is power, then the more we teach our children about how to read food labels, how to calculate nutritional information based on serving size, and the different names for sugar, the better they will be able to take more control of their health. Most children are quite surprised when you have them actually measure out 17 teaspoons of sugar in front of a soda bottle. As a general rule, any word in an ingredient list ending is -ose is part of the sugar family. Other ingredient lists cloak sugar in terms that mistakenly sound "healthy": cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, grape sugar, molasses, raw sugar and beet sugar.
Challenge your children, and yourself, not to eat any processed foods where any type of sugar is in the first five ingredients; it's actually more difficult than you might imagine. If you can forgo added sugars for several weeks, you will notice how overly sweet most sugar products taste once you reintroduce them. Our bodies, and sense of taste, adapt to the excessive amount of sugar in products; we fail to notice how sweet something tastes, but we definitely miss it when it's gone.
Finally, talk with your children about the intentional overuse of sugars in processed foods meant to fuel addictive patterns and increase revenues. For some families, passing on processed foods can equal great food savings as well. Offer to let children and teens "earn" an extra portion of allowance money for a fun trip or special project through the savings of not purchasing processed foods for a two-week period of time.
- Dr. Keely Camden is the dean of the College of Education at West Liberty University and an associate professor of education. She is a former special education teacher.