A hidden enemy lurks in much of the food and beverages kids love to eat and drink: added sugar.
Unlike the naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables, and dairy, added sugars are added to food and beverages during cooking or before serving. According to the American Heart Association, children ages 2–18 and adult women should have a daily limit of six teaspoons of added sugar, and men should limit themselves to nine teaspoons. Children under two years of age shouldn’t consume any added sugar at all.
But children are regularly eating three times the daily recommended amount of sugar, which can lead to a variety of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and high cholesterol.
Two mothers are on a mission to help reduce kids’ sugar intake—and prove that they don’t have to sacrifice the meals and sweet treats they love to do so.
Jennifer Tyler Lee and Dr. Anisha Patel are the authors of the new cookbook “Half the Sugar, All the Love.” The family-friendly cookbook features 100 simple, low-sugar recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, from oven-baked Korean chicken wings, glazed in a date-sweetened chili sauce, to double chocolate brownies, sweetened with sweet potatoes and almond butter.
Lee is a cookbook author and home cook, and Patel is a licensed pediatrician and associate professor of general pediatrics at Stanford University.
I had an opportunity to speak with both authors—with Lee over the phone, and Patel via email—about their new book and the importance of teaching children how to eat and cook with less sugar.
The Epoch Times: Why did you decide to write for a family audience, and why was it important to write for kids in particular?
Jennifer Tyler Lee: My focus has always been children’s health because I think if we start our kids on the right path, that sets them up for a lifetime of healthy habits. Beyond that, kids are consuming their weight in added sugar every year: 64 pounds a year. That level of excess added sugar consumption is leading to serious health consequences.
Anisha Patel: Given our backgrounds (Jen had developed a healthy eating cookbook and game for families, I’m a pediatrician, and we are both moms of kids who like to cook), this was the ideal target audience. In addition, as dietary preferences are established early, we wanted to make sure that our focus was on children.
The Epoch Times: Why do you think added sugar has become so prevalent in our society’s diets?
Ms. Lee: Added sugar shows up in places where you expect it, like cakes and cookies, and also in places where you don’t expect it, like condiments, dressings, and soups. I call those sneaky sugars because you’re not even aware you’re consuming that sugar. In some cases it’s a savory dish, and you’re consuming added sugar.
Dr. Patel: Historically, fat was removed from foods based on health [recommendations], but then sugar and salt were added to improve the flavor of those low-fat foods. Sugar also is added to help mask lower quality ingredients–for example, less ripe tomatoes in winter. Sugar is a preservative and helps to make foods more shelf stable.
The Epoch Times: Is there a particular meal of the day that is the major culprit for excess added sugar?
Ms. Lee: It really shows up in all of our meals. You can have what you think of as a healthy breakfast—yogurt, granola, topped with berries, maybe a drizzle of honey—and you’ve exceeded your added sugar intake for the day. That breakfast can have as much sugar as a candy bar in some cases.
Dr. Patel: Beverages account for about 50 percent of added sugar intake. That is the major culprit. Many children and adults exceed their daily added sugar limit of six to nine teaspoons after eating breakfast. Breakfast foods with a “health halo” such as raisin bran and other cereals, yogurt, granola, energy bars, and oatmeal, have a lot of added sugar.
The Epoch Times: What are some common myths or misconceptions about sugar that you'd like to help dispel?
Ms. Lee: Sugar substitutes are not a smarter choice. That goes for both artificial sweeteners and natural sugar substitutes like stevia and monk fruit. There are new studies showing that stevia and artificial sweeteners affect your gut bacteria in a not positive way. Also, stevia is 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, and what that does is it trains you to crave the sweet. When you use fiber-rich fruits and vegetables instead, you’re sweetening in a healthier way.
Dr. Patel: Less refined “natural” sugar like honey or maple syrup isn’t healthier than refined sugar–for example, granulated sugar. All added sugar counts toward the daily limit. We also need more research on non-nutritive [artificial] sweeteners, particularly among children, before we can recommend them on a general population level.
The Epoch Times: What should we look for when grocery shopping or eating out to avoid unnecessary added sugars?
Ms. Lee: If it’s not listed on the label, which is a lot of the time, you can do this: For example, take a single serving of vanilla yogurt and a plain yogurt–unsweetened, same brand–and then compare the sugar line on those two products. The vanilla yogurt might have 29 grams of sugar, and the plain unsweetened might have 15 grams. Subtract out [the sugar content of the] plain yogurt from [that of] the vanilla, and what you’re left with is how many grams of sugar have been added to that yogurt to sweeten it. If you divide by four, you determine the number of teaspoons of added sugar that are in that yogurt.
When eating out at restaurants, choose your dressing on the side so that you can regulate how much of it you use.
The Epoch Times: When cooking at home, what are some of your favorite easy ways to reduce the amount of added sugar in your food, without sacrificing flavor?
Dr. Patel: Flavor with fiber-rich fruits or veggies, add a drizzle of honey to foods like yogurt rather than buying it presweetened, and use spices and nuts or seeds to add natural sweetness and texture.
Combine items at home. For example, instead of buying raisin bran, buy unsweetened bran flakes and naturally sweet raisins and combine.
Drink water instead of sugary drinks and juice. You can add fruit or veggies for flavor.
The Epoch Times: What are some of the challenges of cooking with less sugar?
Ms. Lee: I think the biggest thing that I learned in developing these recipes is I get why sugar was a valuable tool. It adds sweetness, it gives recipes texture, it holds things together, so when you take it out, the recipe can fall apart. All of the recipes in the book I had to rebuild from the ground up.
The Epoch Times: Did you have your kids taste some of the recipes in the book?
Ms. Lee: Yes, my kids and Anisha’s kids have both tested the recipes in the book. Even beyond that, because we wanted the recipes to be super easy for everyone to make, my 15-year-old daughter, who was 13 [at the time], tested the recipes in the book from start to finish.
The Epoch Times: How did the kids react?
Ms. Lee: They can’t tell the difference between the brownie that I sweetened with sweet potato and any other brownie. When I served the double chocolate brownies from the book, I didn’t tell them it was low sugar. I just told them these are brownies, and they loved them. Really this book is all about enjoying the foods that you love in a healthier way.
The Epoch Times: What are some of your go-to recipes from the book?
Ms. Lee: For breakfast, I really love the honey peach breakfast pops, because they are very quick and easy to make, and they can serve as breakfast, snacks, or dessert.
Dinner is one of those sneaky [meals]. You don’t think you’re eating sugar, and there it is. I love the oven-baked Korean wings. Those have zero added sugar. They’re great for game day, and they’ve got this spicy chili sauce that’s sweetened with dates. It’s just delicious.
For dessert, I really love those double chocolate brownies sweetened with sweet potato. They’re gluten-free, too. My son’s favorite is a no-churn banana ice cream with chocolate and salted caramel; that caramel I create with dates.
The Epoch Times: Do you think it’s important for families to cook together?
Ms. Lee: I do think it’s important for families to cook together when you can, and I’ve got tips throughout the book for how you can involve kids in cooking.
Cooking is the antidote to added sugar. Cooking is also one of the easiest ways to set your kids up for a lifetime of healthy habits. If they can learn how to cook a few simple dishes, you’re setting them on the right path. It’s also a great way to bring your family together.
Dr. Patel: Eating at home is a healthier choice than eating out, since you can control all the ingredients you put in your foods. Also, children who eat meals with their families at home eat healthier foods, have a better weight, have fewer eating disorders, and have improved social-emotional health.
The Epoch Times: Do you have any advice for getting kids involved in the kitchen, and teaching them to be more aware about the food they’re eating in general?
Ms. Lee: My biggest piece of advice is to let the kids choose what they want to make. Let them open the book, find something that’s inspiring to them, and then make that together.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.