Youngest Americans Least Protected from Added Sugar Health Risks

Industry Influence Blocks Policies That Could Protect Young Children

Published Sep 28, 2016

WASHINGTON (September 28, 2016)—Federal labeling, dietary guidelines, and marketing rules are not protecting small children—from birth to five years old—from the health risks of added sugar in food, according to the report “Hooked for Life: How Weak Policies on Added Sugars Are Putting a Generation of Children at Risk,” released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“Many foods meant for young children have nutrition labels based on adult diets,” said Genna Reed, report author and science and policy analyst at UCS. “We know that consuming too much added sugar increases the risk of serious health problems, but it’s even more dangerous for children under five because they have lower-calorie diets and their dietary habits are still developing. Parents need better information to help them keep their kids healthy.”

In May, the FDA approved a new nutrition label for food that includes a clear indication of how much sugar the manufacturer has added to the product and a percent daily value for it based on a newly set reference value of 50 grams of added sugar per day for adults and 25 grams for children between one and three years old.

“The FDA’s revised label is a huge win for transparency and public health but it will still mean that a four year old’s daily value is based on adults’ daily calories,” said Reed. “ Parents should choose what their kids eat based on standards that have kids’ health in mind, not adults.” 

The UCS report also calls on the FDA to amend the rules that allow companies to make health claims on food labels so if a product contains a high amount of added sugar it cannot bear language that may mislead consumers.

“It’s clear that we need better policies to make sure children get a better start so they can avoid lifelong health problems,” said Reed. “ The American Heart Association just recommended that children under two years old should avoid consuming added sugar altogether. It is imperative that as the Dietary Guidelines for the first time covers this age group, these federal recommendations reflect the latest science and ignore food industry pushback.”

The report points out that many foods and beverages high in added sugar, such as juices, yogurts, cereals and fruit snacks, are marketed at young children. The food industry spends a quarter of its annual advertising budget—nearly $1.8 billion—on ads directed at children. All the while, these same food and beverage companies wield their power to influence public health policies and lobby key members of Congress on specific bills that would improve nutrition standards.

“Our food policies need to be shaped by science, not industry pressure,” said Reed. “Food companies have twisted scientific findings, used misinformation and applied political pressure to block policies that would help parents understand more about the food they buy for their families.”

New research from the University of California-San Francisco has revealed that sugar-industry allies manipulated science for decades in order to increase Americans’ sugar consumption, despite clear evidence of the health risks. Over-consumption of added sugars is linked to diabetes, obesity and heart and liver disease.

These dangers are even more acute for children in disadvantaged communities. Thanks to industry marketing and unequal access to healthy food, children in low-income households and in communities of color are more exposed to health risks from excessive sugar. Rates of overweight and obese children ages two through five are higher among Hispanic and African American children than among white and Asian children. These inequities can lead to lifelong gaps in health outcomes for children of color.