Big Sugar Bad for Babies, CDC Scientists Say—but Food Industry Disagrees

February 3, 2015 | 10:01 am
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

A new CDC study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, tells us something about infants and sugar that is worrisome, though not especially surprising if you’ve been following the food industry’s efforts to mislead the public and influence the science and policy on added sugar.

The study examined the salt and sugar content of commercial infant and toddler food in the U.S. Researchers looked at a 2012 dataset of 1074 infant and toddler foods and beverages. Among infant products, they found that 41 of 79 mixed grains and fruits—i.e. healthy seeming items—contained more than one added sugar; in 35 infant items, more than 35 percent of calories came from sugar. Among toddler products, the researchers found that 72 percent of dinners and most cereal bars, breakfast pastries, fruit, snacks, desserts, and juices contained more than one added sugar.

Given the American Heart Association’s recommendations on added sugar, it’s pretty clear from the CDC study that many very young children are getting too much.

How do parents know how much is too much?

The study concludes with advice to pediatricians. Namely, counsel parents to pay attention to labels on the food and drink products they buy for their infants and toddlers and try to limit the added sugar. Unfortunately, this advice—no matter how well parents try to follow it—can only go so far.

An added sugars declaration on the Nutrition Facts label would empower consumers with knowledge of how much sugar has been added to foods. Photo: iStock

An added sugars declaration on the Nutrition Facts label would empower consumers with knowledge of how much sugar has been added to foods. Photo: iStock

Currently, the Nutrition Facts label does not provide parents with enough information to truly make informed decisions. Total sugar is listed in grams—not the more familiar teaspoons—and neither the amount of added sugar nor the percent daily value are provided. So parents, who may be trying diligently to follow their pediatricians’ science-informed advice, cannot know how much sugar has been added to the foods and beverages they are feeding their infants and toddlers—or how much is too much.

As the FDA considers its proposed rule to update the Nutrition Facts label to include added sugar, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are concurrently developing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A forthcoming report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—an independent scientific body tasked with providing guidance to the agencies—is expected to contain recommendations on limiting added sugar to a maximum of 10 percent of daily calories and including added sugar and percent daily value on the Nutrition Facts label.

It would be an important, science-based step forward not only for parents of young children but for all Americans if the agencies decide to adopt the DGAC’s recommendations on limiting and labeling added sugar.

It’s not about personal choice

One of the important things that will happen if and when more information about added sugar is made available on food labels is that people will better understand not only the amount of it in any one food product but how omnipresent it is across our food supply.

cheerios side by side better

Cheerios is a brand many consumers trust as “healthy,” but while regular Cheerios only has 1 gram of sugar, Cheerios Protein has a whopping 17 grams per serving (more than 4 teaspoons). That’s more than half what the American Heart Association recommends for women for an entire day. But you’d never know it from the current Nutrition Facts label, which only lists total sugar and no percent daily value.

Predictably, the food industry has responded to the CDC’s study on infant and toddler food with skepticism, doubt-mongering, and the old, tobacco-style “free choice” argument. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing major food companies like General Mills, the CDC study “does not accurately reflect the wide range of healthy choices available in today’s marketplace” and “could needlessly alarm and confuse busy parents as they strive to develop suitable meal options that their children will enjoy.”

Indeed! Those busy parents would realize that added sugar is everywhere and almost unavoidable in processed food that is marketed to appear healthier than it really is—not only in infant and toddler food but in cereal, bread, yogurt, pasta sauce, and even salad dressing. These aren’t choices in any real sense of the word. If the food industry really cared about healthy choices, it would accept the science linking sugar to a host of health problems and be honest with their customers. Maybe choices and preferences would change—and maybe the food industry would have to change, too, if it wanted to keep those customers.

And that’s a lot more challenging—but a lot better for public health—than doubt-mongering and science denial.