28 Feb 2023 Article

In this article we talk about how much sugar children can eat. But also, about how much sugar adults can eat. This way you can better relate and understand the guidelines. At the end of the article, you will find a small list of daily foods containing (too) much sugar. Hopefully a few parents among my readers will become more aware of how much sugar is hidden in our daily, regular foods.

What does the Health Council of the Netherlands say about sugar consumption?

There is no recommendation in the Netherlands for the amount of sugar per day. Neither for adults nor for children. The reason: The Health Council notes that “there is too little evidence to establish separate amounts for mono-, di- and polysaccharides”. The advice of the Health Council is “not to eat too many products with added sugar”. As a dietitian, I find that ridiculous. Because: how much is not too much exactly? If you leave the interpretation to the consumer themselves, this will not work out.

Interestingly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has found enough evidence to make concrete recommendations. Those recommendations are adopted by the health authorities of most developed countries. Let’s see what the WHO says exactly.

What does the World Health Organization say?

According to the WHO, the consumption of free sugars should not exceed 10% of all energy consumed, and preferably less than 5%. Let me explain right away what free sugars are. Free sugars include monosaccharides (e.g., glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (e.g., sucrose, also known as table sugar), which are added to foods and beverages by manufacturers (or consumers themselves). Sugar, which is naturally present in sugary foods such as honey, syrup and fruit juices, also falls into this category. But! The WHO recommendations do not apply to so-called natural sugars found in fresh fruit, vegetables and milk. So much concerning the myth “you can’t eat a lot of fruit because it has a lot of sugar”. Enjoy the sweet taste of fruit without feeling guilty!

Why 5%?. Because the WHO has found strong evidence that eating less than 5% of total energy intake from free sugars reduces the risk of being overweight, obesity and tooth decay.

What do the WHO recommendations mean in practice for adults?

How much is 5% (sugar) of your energy consumption? Let’s do the math together. Men need an average of about 2,500 calories per day, women — 2,000 calories. Five percent (sugar) is 125 and 100 calories per day, respectively. There are 400 calories in 100 grams of sugar. This means that the WHO recommends eating no more than 25 grams of sugar (women) or 30 grams (men) per day. A teaspoon of sugar is about 4 g. This means that you can eat 6-7 teaspoons of sugar per day. But you should not only consider the “pure” sugar you add to tea, coffee, or baked goods, but also the sugar contained in sweeteners such as honey, agave syrup, and fruit juices. And, naturally, all the sugar from daily foods such as sweetened yogurt, granola and basically everything you eat.

But how much sugar can children eat?

In the Netherlands there is no clear guideline for children regarding sugar (don’t you think it’s ridiculous?). The English National Health Service for instance, makes the following recommendations (inspired by those of the WHO):

  • Children aged 4 to 6 should not consume more than 19 g of free sugars per day (5 sugar cubes).
  • Children aged 7 to 10 should not have more than 24 g of free sugars per day (6 sugar cubes).
  • Children aged 11 and older, like adults, are allowed a maximum of 30 g of free sugars per day (7 sugar cubes).

There is no guideline for children under 4, but it is recommended for the smallest children to avoid sugary drinks and foods with added sugar. In this advice, sugary drinks include both drinks with added sugar and fruit juice.

Hidden sugar

It is clear to almost everyone that there is a lot of sugar in all types of industrial confectionery, such as cakes and pastries, as well as in sweets and ice cream. But not everyone knows that a significant portion of the sugar you eat is hidden in processed foods, which are usually not even sweet. Energy drinks, muesli bars, granola, gingerbread, and breakfast flakes such as cornflakes also contain a lot of sugar. Manufacturers add sugar to sauces and dressings, baby food and bread. So, it is almost everywhere. That’s why I call label reading strategy number one in the fight against sugar.

I have prepared a small list of foods that are commonly consumed by children but are not seen as sugar sources by most people:

  • Fruit flavored yogurt drink (200 ml): 15-30 g sugar;
  • Apple juice (200 ml): 21 g sugar;
  • Soft drink such as Cola (200 ml): 21 g sugar;
  • Energy drink (200 ml): 21 g sugar;
  • Croissant with chocolate (95 g): 17 g sugar;
  • Raisin bun (50 g): 16 g sugar;
  • Fruit flavored yoghurt (125 ml): 15 g sugar;
  • Crunchy muesli (50 g): 10-12 g sugar;
  • Sprinkles (10 g): 8 g sugar.

In my follow-up article I will give you some practical advice on how to limit your children’s sugar consumption.