Over the past few decades, the United States has been grappling with a sugar epidemic, contributing to various health issues, especially among children. Due to their developing bodies and susceptibility to sugar overload, children, in particular, are at a higher risk of developing chronic health conditions. However, by promoting healthy eating habits and reducing the intake of added sugars, children, as well as adults, can be protected against this emerging sugar epidemic posing a serious threat to human health.
How sugar is putting children’s health at risk
Mothers who consume unhealthy colored sugary drinks and feed them to their children directly impact their development, as fructose syrup negatively affects a child’s developing brain. While humans have always had a natural attraction to sweets, children are particularly vulnerable to added sugar.
Doctors recommend natural sugar from fruits and caution against excessive artificial sugar intake. JAMA Internal Medicine warns that exceeding the daily sugar limit increases the risk of heart disease-related death by 30%. (Heid M, 2019).
In 2020, the Nation Confectioners Association in the USA conducted research on candy and chocolate sales, only to conclude that the demand shot up to 21% (Sweitzer-Lamme, 2020). Another New York-based market research consultancy found that candy and snack brands make up a third of the 50 most popular brands among children. This further begs the question of whether the increase in candy and snack consumption is a result of the pandemic or a pre-existing trend in the food industry.
Obesity in the USA has been on the rise in the past decade. More than 14 million children and adolescents are estimated to be affected by this modern-era disease. The young population is facing mild to severe symptoms of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, as well as respiratory and joint problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “obesity prevalence in 2020 was 12.7% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 20.7% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 22.2% among 12- to 19-year-olds” (CDC, 2022). The study has also shown that higher education levels among household heads correlated with lower obesity rates (CDC, 2022).
Pediatrics advise parents that candies saturated with sugar exceed the recommended daily limit of 25 grams. The research has discovered that over-consumption of sugar leads to learning problems and health issues. Surprisingly, most of the sugar was found in colored drinks advertised as child-friendly. Child health experts advise parents to encourage their children to self-regulate and find balance, while also emphasizing the importance of reading food labels, as “there are 200 names for sugar – and they are hidden in 70% of processed foods” (Lindberg E, 2020).
Protecting the children in the USA from the sugar epidemic
Children have the right to a healthy diet and they should be protected from harmful substances. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t portray a good picture when advertising unhealthy products to the public. Children and families who live in poverty are the most affected by the unfair treatment, simply because they don’t possess the means to maintain a healthy diet.
Many families in the USA are not able to choose adequate nutrition since it is not affordable. This only directly violates children’s right to non-discrimination, but it also neglects children’s basic needs. Considering that “77% of processed food sales globally are controlled by just 100 large firms”, food companies should take greater responsibility for advertising highly processed foods (UNICEF, n.d.).
In comparison to Asia and Africa, “which bear the greatest share of all forms of malnutrition,” the USA has greater resources and capacity to enhance the well-being of children in the country. One of the most important steps is to ensure that children have a diverse and nutritious diet from an early age, which can enable them to reach their full potential in the future (UNICEF, n.d.).
The US advisory panel, a governmental organization that has been advising parents on child nutrition since 1980, made a commendable suggestion in 2020 to limit processed sugar intake for the first two years of infants’ lives. This initiative is an excellent example of influencing the public to make necessary changes based on scientific evidence that suggests the importance of nutritional exposure in shaping long-term health and food preferences (LaMotte, 2020). Considering that the initiative is still relatively new, its impact is yet to be fully assessed in the years to follow.
The good news for the emerging sugar epidemic in the USA is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is actively working on the promotion of nutritious food for children in school. The committee has launched a revised lunch program after eleven years, looking to target products that contain excessive amounts of sugar, such as yogurts, cereals, and flavored milk. Rather than banning muffins and doughnuts, the experts are limiting sugar in schools. “Research shows school meals are the healthiest meals in a day for most kids”, which is why it is of crucial importance to provide the children with them (Murez C, 2023).
Although the consumption of added sugars in the United States had been steadily increasing until 2020, this trend is not entirely negative. Medical experts have noted that sweetness can alleviate pain in young infants, emphasizing the importance of individual observation (Johnston et al, 2014). Likewise, excessive sugar intake may result in Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in certain children, leading to future learning and medical issues.
Ensuring children’s healthy development with safer food solutions
Governments, policymakers, and food companies, not just in the USA but globally, should work together on building a more stable food environment. The improvements can be measured in food availability, price, advertisements, as well as the number of products offered. Apart from the political and economic status of a country, the personal environment plays a vital role in the health of a child.
Moreover, the role of parents and caregivers in promoting healthy eating habits and reducing sugar intake in children’s diets is of paramount importance. However, not all parents are financially equipped to provide the best for their children. This is where the children’s rights to life, survival, and development play a role.
Furthermore, governments and NGOs have a task to ensure that children can grow and develop in a safe and nurturing environment. This can be achieved through enforcing laws and establishing effective child protection systems. To protect the children, the two should work together in raising awareness and providing fair access to education and healthcare.
To promote the vitality and well-being of both children and adults, it is crucial to balance the consumption of added sugars by incorporating natural sources of sweetness such as fruits and vegetables into a balanced diet. By doing so, children can reduce the need for added sugars while still satisfying a sweet tooth.
At Humanium, we collaborate with child development experts to raise awareness about pressing issues affecting children worldwide, including promoting children’s right to health while preventing hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. Moreover, since its start in 2008, Humanium has been collaborating closely with Hand in Hand India, our local partner, fostering and including healthy sugar-free food programs in all our joint projects.
Written by Lidija Misic
CDC (2022), Childhood Obesity Facts, Prevalence of Childhood Obesity in the United States. Retrieved from Center for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html, accessed on March 15, 2023.
Dworski Brett (2018), Which Snack and Candy Brands Are Most Popular Among Kids. Retrieved from CSP Daily News at https://www.cspdailynews.com/snacks-candy/which-snack-candy-brands-are-most-popular-among-kids#page=5, accessed on March 13, 2023.
Heid Markham (2019), Is Sugar as Bad for Kids as It Is for Adults? Retrieved Time at https://time.com/5640428/sugar-kids-vs-adults/. Accessed on March 19, 2023.
Johnston et al (2014), Sugar Intake in Children and Adolescents and Its Effects on Health. Retrieved from ResearchGate at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/300842245_Sugar_Intake_in_Children_and_Adolescents_and_Its_Effects_on_Health, accessed on March 17, 2023.
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Lindberg Eric (2020), You Know Sugar is Bad for Your Kids. Here’s What You Can Do. Retrieved from uscTrojanFamily at https://news.usc.edu/trojan-family/help-kids-eat-less-sugar-usc-pediatrician-tips/, accessed on March 15, 2023.
Murez Cara (2023), USDA Proposes New Rules to Cut Sugar, Salt in School Meals. Retrieved from U.S. News at https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2023-02-03/usda-proposes-new-rules-to-cut-sugar-salt-in-school-meals#:~:text=What’s%20different%20this%20time%20is,for%20school%20breakfasts%20and%20lunches., accessed on March 17, 2023.
Sweitzer-Lamme Maddy (2020), We’re Eating More Candy and Chocolate During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Retrieved from Allrecipes at https://www.allrecipes.com/article/candy-sales-spike-during-coronavirus/, accessed on March 13, 2023.
UNICEF (n.d.), Protecting Children’s Right to a Healthy Food Environment. Retrieved from UNICEF at https://www.unicef.org/media/96101/file/Protecting-Childrens-Right-Healthy-Food-Environment.pdf, accessed on March 17, 2023.