Not Such A Sweet Treat

Ever wondered why your kids prefer sweet treats and fast foods? That mystery has now been put to rest. Scientists tell us that it’s all in the genes! Children are biologically programmed from birth to detect sweet and salty tastes over other flavours. In fact, they are sensitive to bitter tastes. Nature has predisposed children to the sweet flavour to ensure that they get enough calories for their bodies to grow and mature. This strong preference for sugar will only decline after their growth peaks in the post puberty years. Another reason for craving sugar is because it induces the release of the “feel good” brain hormone dopamine, giving your child pleasurable feelings. Unchecked sugar consumption in the early years can lead to sugar addiction in later years.

What is sugar?

Sugar in foods can be naturally occurring or it can be added on. Naturally occurring sugar are found naturally in foods such as fruits (fructose) and milk (lactose). Fructose and lactose are purely carbohydrate but the food sources in which they are found have a lot of other important nutrients like protein, vitamin D, calcium and fibre. Hence, consuming foods that contain natural sugar such as milk, fruits and vegetables is not harmful when eaten in moderation. Neither is the glucose that is metabolised when consuming starchy foods and carbohydrates such as rice, noodles, cereals, bread and tubers.

The white powdery substance that we commonly use at home as table sugar is refined sugar that is extracted from sugar cane and sugar beet. Added sugar is also found in partly refined products such as corn syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, caramel, and gula Melaka. In addition, other forms of sugar are also added to soft drinks, fruit drinks, cordials, beverages and processed foods. These added sugars will appear on the packaged food labels as sucrose, fructose, galactose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane juice, evaporated fruit juice, barley malt, honey, maple syrup and so on. Added sugar is used as a flavour enhancer, sweetener, or preservative. It can also alter the texture and colour of food.

How much is too much?

It is the added sugars that are the main cause of concern in your child’s diet. Nutritionally speaking, your child does not need any added sugar and can get enough natural sugars from foods that contain carbohydrate such as rice, breads, cereals, tubers, milk, legumes and fruits. The World Health Organisation (2003) recommends that sugar consumption should not exceed 10% of total daily energy. Hence, maximum daily intake of added sugars in your child’s diet is not more than 5 teaspoons a day for 1-3 year olds and not more than 7 teaspoons a day for 4-6 year olds.

As a general guide, calories from sugar should not be more than 160 calories which is approximately 8 teaspoons of sugar per day. Take note that it is better to be lower than the maximum recommended intake per day. This maximum recommendation is easily exceeded if care is not taken to limit foods and drinks with added sugars.

Food Sugar content (teaspoon; 1 teaspoon level = 5g)
Rose Syrup* 3 1/2 teaspoons
1 Can of Soft Drink** 6 3/5 teaspoons
1 Cup of Chocolate Malted Milk** 4 4/5 teaspoons
Chocolate Ice-cream (100gm)** 5 teaspoons
Ice-cream Sundae with Topping of Whipped Cream** 6 3/5 teaspoons
1 Cupcake** 5 teaspoons
1 Piece of Chocolate Cake with Frosting (64gm, 1/8 of 18oz cake)** 5 1/5 teaspoons
1 Piece of Kuih Seri Muka* 2 1/4 teaspoons
1 Piece of Plain Doughnut* 1 1/4 teaspoons

*National Coordinating Committee on Food and Nutrition (NCCFN), 1999;
**USDA Nutrient Database SR18

Too much sugar isn’t so sweet for your health

Excess sugar intake has been associated with diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and dental cavities.

Obesity – when your child consumes too much sugar, there is excess energy (calorie) intake. When your child does not burn up these excess calories with physical activity, the extra calories that are not used up is converted to fat and stored in the body and causes overweight and obesity. Research has shown that the percentage of overweight and obese children in Malaysia has gone up alarmingly as the prevalence of overweight children below five years in Malaysia is 6.4%. Obesity is also a risk factor for developing non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, cardio-vascular diseases, and even cancer.

Diabetes – though sugar by itself does not cause diabetes, it can lead to excess glucose in the bloodstream. The body produces insulin to remove the excess glucose but if not enough insulin is produced to control the levels of glucose, this can lead to Type II Diabetes.

Dental cavities – bacteria in the mouth uses sugar to produce a substance called glucan. Glucan helps bacteria stick to your child’s teeth and produce acids that will erode the protective enamel of his teeth.

Cut sugar intake by half

Sugar rich foods are full of empty calories and often displace nutritious foods that children need. Experts say that eating high sugar foods in their early years makes children crave sugar more in later years. So, start training your child early to reduce their craving for sweet things.

Here are some tips:

  • Keep the sweets, honey, sweet sweetened beverages out of sight while keeping in view healthy snacks such as fruits and nuts.
  • Limit your child’s intake of sugary and cordial drinks to the occasional parties and outings and stick to 100% fruit juices, milk and water at home.
  • Instead of store-bought processed treats, make healthy homemade sweets. Try to cut down the sugar called for in your recipe by one-third to one-half. Often you won’t notice the difference.
  • Instead of adding sugar in recipes, use extracts like almond, orange, vanilla or lemon.
  • Allow your child sweet treats once a week and stick strictly to this timetable. Your child will begin to accept this as a routine practice in your home and soon, it will become a habit.
  • Don’t use sweets to reward your kids.
  • Make food shopping in the supermarket a learning experience by teaching your children to read the food labels to pick out unhealthy ingredients. If sugar is listed at the top of the ingredients list – that is an indication it contains mostly sugar as one of the main ingredients.
  • Your child is watching what you eat. Be a role model to your child by choosing healthy alternatives to sugary treats and limiting your intake of sugar.

An educational collaboration with Nutrition Society of Malaysia.

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