I’m not a parent, but I know from conversations with colleagues and friends who are that getting children to eat a healthy diet is a top priority when you have a little one. Yet, children’s health isn’t exactly at the top of the priorities list for the food industry. Instead, food companies have been capitalizing on children’s inherent attraction to sweet foods and beverages and the likelihood that early exposure in childhood will hook them on sugars into adulthood.
Where does government fit in amongst these competing priorities?
My new report, Hooked for Life: How Policies on Added Sugars Are Putting a Generation of Children at Risk, reveals that despite the overwhelming evidence linking sugar with negative health outcomes, US federal policies and nutrition guidance have failed to fully reflect that science. This is in part due to the food industry’s lobbying power and outsize influence on federal rulemaking. Together with its aggressive marketing campaigns targeted at children, and especially at children of color, the food industry has been instrumental in delaying improvements to nutrition standards related to added sugar, while continuing to sell sugar-rich foods to young children. This tactic is not even shocking anymore considering that we found out earlier this month that the sugar industry had been funding science absolving sugar of its association with chronic heart disease since the 1960s in order to boost sugar consumption.
Some key findings from the report include:
Children are consuming too much added sugar, too early in life
Biology works against us in our sugar-coated food environment. Babies are biologically “programmed” to enjoy sweetness, which is nature’s way of ensuring that they like nutrient-dense, sweet-tasting breast milk. When children perceive something sweet, the tongue’s taste receptors are stimulated and their stomach releases hormones that arouse their brain’s pleasure center. Given that food preference begins very early in life, overloading a baby’s food with sugar can lead to a lifelong preference for sugar-rich foods. Yet added sugars make up more than half of the daily calorie intake for over 90 percent of children aged two to eight. Excessive added sugar consumption has been linked to a greater risk of tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and hypertension, which is especially concerning for children.
The FDA’s Nutrition Facts Label is not fully aligned with the Dietary Guidelines
In May, we celebrated a great victory when the FDA released its final rule of revisions for the Nutrition Facts label that will require inclusion of the grams and percent daily value of added sugar on all food packages. However, there is room for improvement when it comes to children. The current label still leaves the door open for food companies to produce and market high-sugar foods to children that have comparable serving sizes and sugar amounts to similar products meant for adults, making it harder to parents to know whether a food has acceptable levels of sugar for a child.
Front-of-package health claims disregard added sugar content
The FDA has certain disqualifying levels for saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium, above which makers of a product may not make any health claims. Added sugar is notably absent from this category, even though consumption of added sugar is linked to increased disease risk. This means sugar-rich foods can still have front-of-package claims that lead consumers to think a product is more healthy than it actually is. These claims can mislead consumers by taking attention away from high sugar content and touting “low fat” or “low sodium,” deflecting attention away from the other added sugars in a product by writing “no high fructose corn syrup,” or grab a consumer’s attention with the word “healthy,” even if it has high sugar amounts.
Federal nutrition programs could improve sugar standards
Federal supplemental food programs that serve participants under age five have not fully aligned nutritional guidelines with scientific advice. While the Child and Adult Food Care Program (CACFP) issued a final rule, making strong updates regarding sugar content in foods for young children, The Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) still could make improvements to its food packages to ensure that children in this program do not exceed 10 percent of calories from added sugar per day.
Food industry continues to find new ways to market junk food to young children
The food industry self-regulates limits on its marketing of unhealthy foods to children through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative launched by the Council of Better Business Bureaus a decade ago. Member companies, including some of the biggest snack food companies like PepsiCo, Nestle USA, and Kraft Foods Group, have pledged to advertise only foods that meet the initiative’s nutrition criteria to children. The food industry still spends almost $2 billion on advertising to children every year, on TV and the internet. Even preschoolers are not safe from junk food ads, seeing as four-fifths of US children under five use the internet on a weekly basis, and three-fifths of children three years and under watch videos online.
Children of color bear the brunt of food industry’s junk food marketing
Rates of overweight and obese children ages 2 to 5 are higher among Hispanic and African American children than among white and Asian children. Low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods often have fewer supermarkets and more fast food restaurants than in predominantly white neighborhoods, and food companies often target these demographics with marketing of high-sugar, low-nutrition foods. These inequities can lead to lifelong gaps in health outcomes for children of color.
We need policies that shield children from the health risks of added sugar
Caring for a child brings with it a variety of stressors, and diet is one over which parents have some semblance of control. That is why it’s crucial that they have the tools they need to nourish their children and set them up for a healthy life.
We need more age-appropriate nutrition standards and clearer labeling on food for young children. Such policy changes are critical given the gaps in nutritional information, the high amounts of added sugars in their diets, and the fact that taste preferences are shaped during early childhood.
As science continues to accumulate linking sugar consumption to weight gain and several chronic diseases, the government must do more to give parents clear nutrition information on labels and dietary guidance so that they can go into grocery stores armed with that knowledge against the misleading marketing that currently overruns food aisles. Improved labeling and child-specific nutritional guidance could help parents and caregivers dramatically reduce children’s added-sugar consumption, compel industry to reformulate its products into healthier options, and, hopefully in combination with other healthy behaviors, lower the incidence of diseases associated with excessive added-sugar consumption.