Sugar – A nutrient to watch

What Are the Current Recommendations for Children?

Sugar remains a hot topic for parents looking to provide good nutrition to their kids, especially for infants and young children as they grow up and their bodies develop quickly. Sugar is a form of carbohydrate which has a primary role within our bodies (via its conversion to glucose) to provide energy to cells, particularly our brain that requires glucose for its metabolism. Interestingly, sugar provides the same number of kilojoules (kJ) per gram (16.7kJ of energy) as other forms of carbohydrates often found in breads, rice, pasta and fruits.

For mums and dads, your role in influencing food choices for your children at a young age helps contribute to the development of eating habits (both healthy and unhealthy habits). Infants, in particular, during complementary feeding stages, discover the texture, taste and flavour, as well as the nutritional properties, such as the energy density, of the foods that will make up their adult diet [1].

A high intake of sugar is linked with a number of health concerns including type 2 diabetes, obesity, dental cavities and heart disease. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 23% of Australian children aged 2–4 years old are overweight or obese [2]. This is a startling statistic and highlights the increasing concern over the role of sugar in our family diets.

Walk down any supermarket aisle and you’ll quickly discover sugar in a wide range of everyday foods, from the obvious chocolate, ice cream, soft drink and fruit juices, to the less obvious products like low-fat yoghurts, salad dressing, tomato sauces, bread and granola bars. Because sugar is in so many foods, it’s important to know the sources of sugar so you can make more informed decisions for your family’s health.

Global recommendations – where does Australia stand?

In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a guideline which strongly recommends that individuals reduce their ‘free sugar’ intake to be no more than 10% of their total kilojoule intake. The guideline is based on evidence that keeping your intake of free sugars below 10% of your total energy intake reduces the risk of obesity and tooth decay [3].

‘Free sugars’ refers to sugars added to foods, as well as those found in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It doesn’t refer to sugars found in fresh fruits and vegetables, or those naturally present in milk. Australian guidelines state that children aged 12 months old have an estimated energy requirement (EER) of 3,200kJ/day for girls and 3,500kJ/day for boys [4]. Therefore, based on the WHO Guidelines of 10%, your children’s free sugar intake should range between 320kJ and 350kJ a day – this is the equivalent of 19g and 21g of sugar a day.

Currently there is no recommended daily intake for sugar in Australia across all age ranges. The Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) suggest that it is not possible to set a recommended intake for carbohydrates for most age and gender groups because of the limited data available. The only recommendations which have been made by the Government are for infants aged 0-6 months and 7-12 months where an average intake of 60g per day and 95g per day has been set [5].

For older kids, the WHO guidelines are even more important in working out how much sugar is needed each day – this includes snacks and drinks that are consumed between meals. The Australian Government’s Department of Health and Ageing is, however, currently undertaking a review of the nutrient reference values for Australia and New Zealand including the Recommended Daily Intakes (RDIs), so we hope there will be an updated guideline specific to Australian children to help parents in the near future.

About the Author

Diana Austen works for Whole Kids as a Nutrition Advisor. With a Master’s degree in nutrition, she has spent over six years’ experience working with a range of companies on innovation, strategic insight and regulatory and scientific affairs. Fascinated by the nutritional requirements of infants and young children she focuses specifically on products for this age group.


[1] Nicklaus S. The role of food experiences during early childhood in food pleasure learning. Appetite, 2016; 104: 3-9.
[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (accessed 7 February 2017).
[3] World Health Organisation (WHO) Guideline on sugars intake for adults and children, 2015 (accessed 12 January 2017).
[4] Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council, Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand (accessed 7 February 2017).
[5] The AI has been set based on the average carbohydrate (mostly lactose) content of breast milk (74 g/L) and an average daily milk volume of 0.78 L in the first 6 months, giving 60 g/day (with rounding). For ages 7-12 months, an estimate was made based on an average volume of 0.60 L/day milk at 74 g/L (44 g/day) plus an amount from complementary foods of 51 g/day (from NHANES III as detailed in FNB:IOM 2002).

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