Five ways to reduce sugar in your family’s diet

Whole foods, fresh fruit can dramatically drop the amount of added sugar your family is consuming

By Edwena Kennedy

Many years ago, before we had so much access to pre-made and processed foods, the worry of having to face sugar at every turn didn’t exist.

When a homemade dessert was available, it was enjoyed to the fullest and the worry never came to parent’s minds that it was unhealthy, or the sugar content was too high. But now, especially if you’re a parent trying to instill healthy habits, I bet you feel your child gets too much sugar and avoiding it is hard. I’m with you.

Excess sugar is one of the hottest nutrition topics around. It’s spoken about by doctors, nutritionists, dentists, and everyone in between. The biggest reason it gets so much attention is because high sugar intake is linked to everything from obesity and type II diabetes, to heart disease and dental cavities.

While sugar itself is naturally found in fruits and dairy products, it’s the added sugar that’s a problem. And although many of us would like to reduce the amount in our family’s diet, it isn’t always as easy as just reducing desserts.

Added sugar is hidden in many common foods, from pasta sauce to yogurt. How can we get some of this sugar out?

What is added sugar and where do you find it?
Added sugar is defined as any sugar used in processing and preparing foods or beverages, or added to foods at the table, or eaten separately, including table sugar, syrups, fructose, and honey.

On the ingredient label, added sugar may appear under many different names (there are 60 of them), i.e. corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, malt sugar, raw sugar, corn sweetener, brown sugar, honey, syrup, glucose-fructose, and sugar molecules ending in “ose.”

The good news is, added sugars don’t include sugars that naturally occur in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. These sugars are natural, provide energy, and are bound to other nutrients like fibre, which makes eating them a healthy choice.

How much sugar should we consume?
The average Canadian is consuming 26 teaspoons of sugar a day. The World Health Organization and the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Canada say added sugar should be no more than 10 per cent of our total calories (ideally keep it down to five per cent). That’s five to 10 tsp of added sugar daily (or 50g) for an adult on a 2,000 kcal diet.

For children under two years, the recommendation is to avoid added sugar completely. It can displace calories from more nutrient dense food, causes cavities, and lead to a taste preference for sweets over healthy food.

Some foods are more obviously full of added sugar than others. For example, any “sweet” food or drink, such as soft drinks, candy, cookies, and desserts. In fact, almost half of the average daily sugar intake of children from one to eight years and adolescents from nine to 18 come from flavoured milk, fruit juice, regular soft drinks, and fruit drinks.

Other “non sweet” foods also contain added sugar, such as cereals, pasta sauces, salad dressings, peanut butter, and yogurt.

When most of your food is processed, it’s easy to surpass the recommended daily amount. Here are my top five tips for reducing added sugar:

1. Less processed, more whole foods
When we decrease the amount of processed food we eat and eat foods in their natural state or minimally modified, i.e. a whole food, we instantly decrease added sugar in our diet.

So, if you eat Ben’s sandwich bread, try fresh baked bread from a local grocer instead. Use a lot of ketchup? Try replacing it with hummus, pesto, or tzatziki. Substitute plain Greek yogurt for sour cream. Replace fruit gummies/leathers with a piece of fruit. Trade canned pasta sauce for homemade tomato sauce with herbs.In general, look for products with 6g added sugar or less per serving. This goes for cereal, yogurt, muffins, granola bars, energy bars/protein bars, and packaged snacks like cookies, crackers, fruit snacks.

2. Discover new “sweet” alternatives
You can use whole foods such as fruits, spices, or various extracts to contrast any tart flavours or to “sweeten” up a dish. A great place to try this is at breakfast.

Breakfast cereals and commercially-flavoured yogurts have a lot of sugar per serving. Some brands of yogurt have up to 36g of sugar per serving.

To reduce sugar in hot cereals, add cinnamon or other “sweet” tasting spices such as nutmeg or cardamom. Just a little goes a long way.

I also love to add a drop or two of a pure extract, such as almond, vanilla, orange, or lemon. I especially love vanilla powder (just dried and ground vanilla beans) because it has concentrated flavour and none of the alcohol taste. Vanilla powder is on the pricier side, but a package will last you a long time.

Here are my favourite homemade-flavoured yogurt recipes:
Hawaiian Dream: Plain Greek yogurt + pineapple + coconut shreds + chia seeds.

Berry Swirl: Plain Greek yogurt + berry compote (simmered berries on the stovetop with a pinch of maple and chia seeds).

Chocolate Lover: Plain Greek yogurt mixed with chocolate coconut yogurt and coconut shreds.

3. Watch those beverages
Sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sport drinks, juice (even those cold-pressed detox juices), iced teas, etc. are the biggest source of added sugar in the North American diet. There’s 24g (six tsp) of sugar in a glass of orange juice and 39g (10 tsp) in just once can of Coke. That’s why water should always be your first choice when you’re thirsty.

To liven up your water, try a sparkling water or flavour plain water by adding cut fruit (ex. oranges or cucumbers), or herbs (ex. basil and mint). Kids love placing a single slice of strawberry, a blueberry, or a raspberry in an ice cube tray with water. Freeze and serve the ice cubes in the water. When drinking milk, always aim for plain vs. chocolate milk, or go half and half.

4. Dilute what you can
To help kids make the transition from commercially-sweetened food, ease into it by mixing half and half of sweetened product with its plain or lower sugar counterpart. Here are some examples to show you:

  • Mix your sweetened yogurt half and half with plain yogurt. Gradually reduce the sweetened yogurt until you’re eating just the plain.
  • Mix your high sugar cereal or oatmeal half and half with low sugar cereal and gradually shift the ratios in favour of the lower sugar cereal.
  • Reduce the amount of sugar called for in baking recipes by using 2/3 of what the recipe says and taste test. Next time try half the amount. How low can you go? Or try substituting dates and fruit purees. When using fruit as a substitute, the riper the better.

5. Redefine desserts
While there’s always a time and place for rich, sugar-filled desserts, redefine your everyday dessert to include a variety of naturally sweet options. A baked pear with cinnamon, sliced banana with a drizzle of honey, trail mix with small pieces of dark chocolate or yogurt bits. Or maybe just fruit after a meal?

Try out these awesome yogurt fruit dips for a sweet and healthy dessert:

“Cookie Dough” Dip

  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons cashew butter, almond butter, or sunflower seed butter
  • 1 date, pitted and finely chopped (optional)
  • Pinch of vanilla powder and cinnamon

Berries & Cream Dip

  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 3 tablespoons crushed freeze-dried fruit (such as strawberries and blueberries)
  • Pinch of vanilla powder

Mix dip ingredients together in a small bowl. Serve chilled with fruit or other snacks for dipping. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Edwena Kennedy is a mom of two, a registered pediatric dietitian and lover of all things related to infant and toddler feeding. Follow her on Instagram @mylittleeater for daily tips and advice on feeding your little ones.

Edwena Kennedy

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