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The sweet tooth: sugar – should we give it to our children?



Children naturally have a sweet tooth. It is far easier to get a baby to eat an apple or a carrot than broccoli!  It is in light of this that food manufacturers sell foods that are high in sugar, as they know that children will pester their parents to buy them.  It is the parents job though to be tough and not to give in to `cupboard love`. 

Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind!

Do children need sugar?

The simple answer is no!  Sugar has no nutrients; and it does not provide any nutritional goodness. 

When too much sugar is eaten it can:

  • Turn to fat
  • Encourage tooth decay, mainly when given as sweets. 
  • Cause hyperactivity in children

However sugar is in all foods and it is a misconceived idea that fruit sugar, such as honey or juices, that state no added sugar are any better for you than other types of sugar.

Are treats okay?

In moderation sugary treats are fine as long as they are given when you wish to buy them and are not given as a result of being pestered or as a comfort food.  Often a healthy example is giving raisins or other dried fruit as a snack. However raisins are full of sugar and can cause tooth decay so be careful to only give dried fruit as part of a meal.

Research has shown that children who are encouraged to comfort eat, i.e. in the pushchair in the supermarket or the changing rooms at the swimming pool, will themselves comfort eat when an adult, and may possibly result in being overweight. 

Healthy snack ideas

  • Cut up fruit, do not peel the apples as the added fibre is an extra benefit (Try making fruit kebabs, the children can help and they are fresh and colourful)
  • Smoothies, can be frozen into ice lollies
  • Homemade popcorn with no added sugar, try garlic instead or herbs
  • Bread sticks
  • Diet canned drinks rather than full sugar varieties  

Hidden Sugars 

Tinned fruit is just as good as fresh, but buy the tinned fruit in fruit juice rather than those in syrup to avoid unnecessary extra sugar.

Unfortunately all too often food that are deemed healthy are often full of sugar, and are often sold as being full of fruit, which may turn out to be a flavouring.  It is important to ensure that you take the time to read the ingredients list and be aware of the true ingredients of the product.  Be careful to read the nutritional details on the food label and be mindful of the total weight of the product, rather than the by 100g or a portion that these are normally listed as. Cereal packs often claim that 30g is a portion, however this is tiny bowl and most people will eat at least double.   If sugar comes towards the beginning of the ingredients list, then there is too much! 

Every day it is important to give a portion of food from the food groups below

  • Protein, fish, chicken, meat, eggs
  • Starchy foods such as pasta, rice naans, chapattis
  • Dairy, cheese, milk
  • Fruit and vegetables  


This is the most important meal of the day – but only if you are giving your children the right cereal.  Cereals that are full of sugar, are not only giving your child unwanted calories, but will be giving them an energy slump in the middle of the day and often calling for them to eat more. 

Often fruit juice is given at breakfast, fruit juice can be one of our five a day, but is also full of sugar.  Try having a glass of fruit juice at dinner instead, where it can play an important role in helping to absorb iron from the diet.  During the rest of the day, encourage your child to drink water. 

Breakfast ideas: 

  • wholegrain toast
  • wholegrain cereals
  • porridge
  • Homemade smoothie, made with either fruit that is tinned, fresh or tinned. – If fruit juice is added, ensure that you also add either water or ice to dilute the sugar content.  If milk is added, try and use semi–skimmed. 

Lunch time 

At lunch time be aware that simple beans on toast is healthy, but also contains unwanted sugar, so be careful to buy the low sugar variety and not to give every day.

Yoghurt is great for children as the calcium is important, but be aware of the added sugar. 

Lunch ideas: 

  • Eggs, poached or scrambled on piece of toast, preferably wholegrain.
  • Soup (be careful to watch the salt)
  • Sandwiches
  • Raw selection of veggies, peppers, carrots, sweetcorn.
  • A selection of fruit
  • Pasta or rice salad 


Processed foods are full of sugar, such as jars of pasta sauces and ready-made meals.

It may be difficult to make your own, however I encourage you to try.  Cook double and freeze, if possible, as by making your own food, you will be aware of the ingredients. 

Dinner ideas 

  • Chicken casserole, add beans and lentils to make the meal go further.
  • Poached fish in foil in the oven
  • Baked potato with a filling such as roasted vegetables, low salt and sugar baked beans or cheese.
  •  Pasta and a sauce, this could be made from pureeing the roasted vegetables and adding some tomatoes to make a sauce. 

Being aware of the bottle! 

Babies and toddlers often get used to a comforter when they are falling asleep; this is often either the breast or a teat from a bottle.  It is important that they get used to falling asleep on their own, and should never be sent to sleep with a bottle!  The teat will stay in their mouth and will gradually cause decay on their teeth.  On no account should squash or fruit drinks be given to a child in a bottle as these will rot the teeth.  Water should be offered from a cup, and if a mess is made, no worries it is just water, we all had to learn somewhere.

Some ideas of some foods where you should be aware of hidden sugars

Milkshakes – these not only have sugar but also have the `milk sugar`

Fruit juices – although fruit sugar, it is still sugar


Canned drinks

Canned fruit in syrup

Breakfast cereals – cereals aimed at children are full of sugar

Foods that look tempting to children and are perceived by adults as being healthy 


About the Author:

Sarah Scotland holds a BSc (Hons) in Nutrition, Exercise and Health. she is an associate member of the Nutrition Society , and also belongs to ASO – Association for the study of obesity, SENSE (self employed nutritionists, support and enlightenment), and Sustain.


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