Keep added sugars down to 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons (100 calories), a day for kids ages 2-18, and no added sugars at all for children less than 2 years old. That's the new recommendation from the American Heart Association. It won't be easy because added sugar is everywhere, but the evidence is building that it's one of the best things we can do for the current and future health of our children.

Added sugars are those that aren't naturally occurring in a food. Identifying which sugars are naturally occurring and which are added can be difficult in packaged foods because the nutrition label lumps the two together and indicates only the amount of total sugars. The FDA's redesigned nutrition label will separate the two, but those labels won't be on packages until 2018. In the meantime, parents can educate themselves about the ingredients in foods and look at the ingredients list to seek out sugar in all its forms including high fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, and all those words that end with "-ose" like fructose, glucose, dextrose and maltrose.

Benefits of slashing sugar

I spoke with Monica Griffin, a Strong4Life wellness program specialist and registered dietitian at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, about the benefits of following the AHA's sugar guidelines for children. She says there are both immediate and long-term benefits to cutting back on the added sweet stuff.

1. Develops a taste for healthy foods. Kids develop their taste preferences when they are really young. When given nothing but sugar all day, they learn that everything they eat and drink should taste sweet. It becomes harder later in life for them to choose foods that aren't sweet. Cutting back, or even eliminating, the added sugars from a very early age will build a foundation for healthy eating.

2. Improves tooth health. Sugar-sweetened drinks and even no-sugar added juice (which has as much sugar as soda ounce for ounce), are an unnecessary source of sugar in kids' diets. "Having that sugary drink on their teeth," says Griffin, "helps to feed bacteria and that causes tooth decay. The American Academy of Pediatrics considers tooth decay as the most common chronic infectious disease of childhood. Once bacteria is in your mouth, putting sugar in your mouth feeds it."

3. Improves school and sports performance. Griffin says a healthy diet is important for kids' performance. When kids fill up on sugary foods they often skip eating healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which means they aren't getting the nutrients they need to perform and to grow. By cutting back on the sugary foods, it makes room to eat other foods — the ones with the necessary nutrients.

4. Decreases chance for obesity and chronic health problems. Consuming a lot of added sugar can contribute to obesity, and being overweight can lead to a whole host of health problems. "Sugars," says Griffin, "seem to have a unique effect on raising levels of triglyceride, a certain kind of lipid fat that is found in the blood." High levels of triglycerides are strongly associated with heart disease. Obesity is also linked to chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep problems and more. Limiting sugar now can help prevent future diseases.

5. Curbs hunger. High sugar foods will get your stomach growling sooner than foods that have good nutrition. This lack of nutrition makes you hungry, crabby and ready to eat again soon. By cutting the sugar, kids have the opportunity to eat less, but eat better.

Tips for slashing sugar

wic-allowed Look for the WIC allowed label in the cereal aisle to easily find cereals low in sugar. (Photo: Strong 4 Life)

Griffin has a few tips for parents who are looking to cut back to the AHA's recommended guidelines for sugar without putting kids into anti-sugar shock.

  • Start slowly and take it one step at a time. The first place to start for most families is with sugary beverages. If a child drinks four cups of sugary drinks a day, cut it down to three each day for a week, watering it down a bit. Then cut it down to two for another week, and so on. Eventually, you can cut it back to what the AHA recommends, which is only one sugary beverage a week for kids.
  • If you go out to eat and allow a sugary beverage with the meal, when it's time for a refill get water instead.
  • Look for cereals with 6 grams of sugar or less per serving. A quick way to find these cereals is to search for the WIC allowed label by the price on the grocery store shelf. To be approved for the WIC program, cereals must have lower added sugar and more whole grains and fiber than other cereals.
  • When purchasing granola bars, look for the crunchy kind that don't have added chocolate coating or candy pieces in them.
  • Fruit and its natural sugars are fine. Fruit snacks and foods "made with fruit" are not. Make sure that fruit is an actual piece of whole fruit for kids. Even a smoothie, says Griffin, is not the same as a piece of fruit. Our bodies don’t respond to things we drink the same as the things we eat. Plus when it’s liquid its sits on tooth and can contribute to tooth decay, while a raw piece of fruit is crunchy and helps clean teeth.
  • Do not replace sugar with artificial sweeteners. It isn't doing anything for their taste buds or teaching them to expect everything to be sweet. Plus, the long-term effects of these sweeteners is still unknown.

Balancing the sweet in desserts

Griffin's final piece of advice is a practical one. Dessert should happen once in a while — maybe once a week — but when you do serve dessert, look for something with a little balance. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Serve angel food cake topped with fresh strawberries with a glass of plain milk.
  • Pop popcorn and drizzle with chocolate for a little bit of sweet added to the whole-grain snack.
  • Serve fresh raspberries on top of chocolate pudding.

The idea is that when you have dessert, you are making sure there are nutrients, not just sugar, in the treat.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.