Pure fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates and fruit purées are used to sweeten a wide variety of children’s foods, including drinks, smoothies, yogurts, cream cheese and dried fruit snacks. But these fruit-based sweeteners are essentially just sugar.
“It is misleading and unnecessary for products to make claims such as ‘no added sugar’, when the product contains high levels of naturally occurring free sugars because it has been processed – for example, fruit juice concentrates”, says Lisa Heggie of University College London, who led the research. “When manufacturers say foods contain ‘no added sugar’, it may imply that the products are low in total sugar. However, if the products contain large amounts of fruit purees and concentrates, this may not be the case.
Manufacturers are allowed to say “no added sugar” if the sweetener is fruit juice concentrate or puree, but they are not allowed to say if they have added honey, syrup and all sugars added. ending in -ose.
The following example illustrates how complicated and confusing it is for parents to make healthy choices for their children. A smoothie, intended for children and sold in supermarkets, contains no added sugar or sweetener, according to the front of the packaging. But the ingredient list reveals that the drinks are 85% apple juice concentrate and crushed fruit. “So it’s all sugar-free,” says Jenner.
In addition, the drinks are sold in 180ml cans, which is 20% more than the daily limit of 150ml of fruit juice or smoothies that the government recommends adults and children consume. And trying to work out how much sugar is in a drink requires a calculation, as the nutritional details are given per 100ml, not per can. (Like many products, drinks do not carry traffic lights, as the system is voluntary). “The actual total for a box of this product is 19.6g of free sugar, which is more than the recommended 19g per day for a child in a drink,” says Jenner.
To add to the confusion, reference intakes (RIs) on nutrition labels – guidelines on the amounts of nutrients needed for a healthy, balanced diet – are given for adults, even on children’s food products.
Overflowing with fruit?
Colorful images of fruits and vegetables on packages further imply healthiness, suggesting that a product is packed with whole fruit. But often the ingredient list reveals that the product is simply sweetened with fruit juice concentrate or puree and contains no whole fruit. In the case of some baby purees, the products marketed as containing vegetables actually contain mostly fruit.
Breakfast cereals are a great example of manufacturers creating a “health halo” around even the highest sugar products. They do this by highlighting the presence of added vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients, and using meaningless but healthy-sounding terms like “natural grains” and “added goodness.”
“Much of children’s daily sugar intake is hidden in packaged and ultra-processed foods, many of which are marketed as healthy,” Heggie says. “For example, a standard serving of breakfast cereal can contain up to 13 g (3 teaspoons) of free sugars, and some yogurts contain up to 15 grams (about 4 teaspoons).”
Experts say reading nutrition labels is key to spotting those hidden sugars, as well as fruit juice concentrates, fruit juices, and fruit puree. Pay attention to ingredients ending in -ose such as sucrose, dextrose, maltose and fructose. Honey, agave and syrups are also sugar free.