Checking nutritional labels and trying healthy sugar swaps can help children avoid cavities and other problems

5 minute read

Sugar helps to provide the vital energy that active and growing children need, but excess sugar can cause a number of problems for their oral health and overall health.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy for kids to consume more sugar than is healthy, even if their parents and schools are already trying to limit added sugar in their diets. This is partly due to the presence of ‘hidden’ sugars in everyday food and drinks that slip through.

Read this guide to learn more about:

  • What sugar does to kids’ teeth and their health
  • Which foods and drinks have the most sugar
  • Differences between natural, added and hidden sugars
  • Recommended intake guidelines
  • Ways to limit sugar
  • Tips for healthier teeth

If you want to talk to a dentist about healthy eating habits or children’s dentistry in Kelmscott, contact our friendly team at Kelmscott Dental today.

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What are the effects of sugar on teeth?

When a child eats or drinks something containing sugar, bacteria on their teeth feed on this sugar and multiply, building up in a sticky layer of plaque and releasing acids as a by-product. These acids can wear down the thin enamel of children’s teeth, causing them to weaken or forming permanent cavities that might need a filling. This is the process of tooth decay, the most common disease among children.

According to the latest National Child Oral Health Study, 42% of Australian children aged 5–10 had experienced tooth decay in their primary (baby) teeth, with around 27% having untreated decay in at least one of these teeth. For those aged 6–14 who already had their permanent (adult) teeth, almost a quarter (24%) had experienced decay in these teeth.*

Children are also susceptible to rapid tooth decay as the enamel on baby teeth is much thinner and softer compared to adult teeth. Untreated decay can lead to oral health problems such as gum disease or early tooth loss in kids, so it’s important to maintain regular dental visits so their dentist can spot and treat any early signs of a problem.

Despite baby teeth being temporary, early tooth loss in children can have knock-on effects for their oral health later in life. If a tooth is lost too early due to decay or trauma, it may lead to orthodontic problems and speech issues. Read our blog about losing baby teeth too early.

Contact our team to schedule an appointment for children’s dentistry at Kelmscott Dental.

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* Do LG & Spencer AJ (Editors) 2016. Oral health of Australian children: the National Child Oral Health Study 2012–14. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.


What are other dangers of sugar for children?

As well as damaging teeth, eating too much sugar is also linked with a higher risk of weight gain and obesity, and developing medical conditions such as heart disease.

Obesity or gum disease that develop as a result of consuming excess sugar may also lead to other complications, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke and liver disease. Some studies have also found links between over-consumption of sugar and increasing anxiety or dementia risk in later life.* For children who have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder) consuming excess sugar has been found to exacerbate ADHD symptoms such as inattentiveness and impulsivity.**

It’s worth understanding which foods and drinks contain the most sugar and exactly how much is considered too much.

* Chong CP, Shahar S, Haron H, Din NC. Habitual sugar intake and cognitive impairment among multi-ethnic Malaysian older adults. Clin Interv Aging. 2019 Jul 22;14:1331-1342. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S211534. PMID: 31413554; PMCID: PMC6662517.

**Yulantari, Ni & Kusuma, I. (2023). High Sugar Intake Increases ADHD Symptoms: A Literature Study. International Journal of Public Health Excellence (IJPHE). 3. 124-127. 10.55299/ijphe.v3i1.513. 


Which foods and drinks have the most sugar?

Most foods contain a degree of natural sugar, such as fruit and vegetables which is an important carbohydrate that helps sustain energy levels and nutrition, but it’s discretionary food and drinks with high amounts of added sugar that should be avoided or enjoyed in moderation. This includes most sweet snacks like lollies, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and ice cream.

Sugar-sweetened drinks like soft drinks, fruit juices and energy drinks can be worse, since it can be easier for kids to drink these too often in place of water. One can of cola can contain the equivalent of nine teaspoons of sugar (or 39 grams). Even seemingly savoury foods and condiments such as pasta sauce, curry sauce, premade soups, baked beans, tomato sauce and salad dressings contain high amounts of added sugar.

You can get an idea of how much sugar is in products you buy by comparing their nutrition labels and ingredient lists. These should show the amount of sugar (often listed under carbohydrates) per 100 grams or per serving. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the higher up sugar appears in the list, the more prominent it is. However, these labels can be misleading when they fail to distinguish between natural sugars and added sugars, or to clarify the many different names of hidden sugars.


Natural and added sugars

When you’re selecting healthy options for your child’s lunchbox and other meals and snacks, it’s important to know that there are different types of sugar. These can be broadly categorised as:

  • Natural sugars: Those that are present in food and drinks in nature, such as glucose in fruit and vegetables, fructose in fruit and honey, lactose in milk, and maltose in malt.
  • Added sugars: Those added during food production to make things sweeter or last longer, such as sucrose.

Natural sugars are typically digested slower in the body than added sugars as they are more embedded in the food’s structure at the molecular level, alongside healthy fibre, vitamins and minerals. This means they can help stabilise the metabolism and sustain your body for longer.

The graph below shows how the body responds to high and low glycemic index (GI) foods:

Watching the amount of natural sugars consumed is still important. For example, eating eight oranges in one sitting would be very challenging but drinking this equivalent in juice form (500ml) is very easy to do. Much of the healthy fibre from oranges is removed through the juicing process and what’s left is 40 grams (or 10 teaspoons) of sugar.

Added sugar tends to be part of less healthy options and far more prevalent in packaged foods, and for these reasons, it’s recommended to limit foods that contain added sugars.

‘Hidden’ sugars

With sugar existing in different forms, manufacturers often list these as separate ingredients, which can be misleading to consumers and make it harder to calculate the true amount of sugar in food and drink. To help you identify and evade these sneaky sugars, here are some of the common names:

  • Agave syrup, corn syrup or maple syrup
  • Cane sugar or coconut sugar
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose
  • Golden syrup
  • Honey
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Sucrose
  • Treacle

What are the recommended guidelines for sugar intake?

If you’re wondering how much sugar is too much, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises trying to keep sugar at 10% or less of your daily energy intake, or below 5% for more health benefits. The equivalent amount of sugar varies depending on the age of children, but is around:

  • 0 years: No added sugar is recommended for infants
  • 1–3 years: 30 grams of sugar per day (6 teaspoons)
  • 4–6 years: 35g/day (7 tsp)
  • 7–10 years: 42g/day (8.5 tsp)
  • Teens and adults: 50g/day (10 tsp)

To put this into context, a bowl (100 grams) of Kelloggs Crunchy Nut cornflakes contains 35 grams of sugar, which is more than half the daily intake recommended for teens and adults.

Ways to cut down on sugar

If you’re concerned about reducing sugar in your family’s diet, a good first step is to check food and drink nutrition labels before you buy, and to choose products with no added sugar. That doesn’t have to mean avoiding your favourite recipes and desserts altogether, as in many cases, you can find healthier sugar swaps.

For example, the natural sugars in apple puree, mashed banana or dates can substitute for added sugar in baking, while raw cacao can be an alternative to using chocolate. If your kids enjoy fruit juices and milkshakes, try healthier fruit smoothies instead, though there’s no substitute for plain water when it comes to staying hydrated.

It’s also important to keep healthy sources of sugar in your kids’ diet to avoid energy and nutritional deficiencies. Australian dietary guidelines recommend that children should eat from five food groups:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables, legumes and beans
  • Grain foods
  • Lean meat or alternatives
  • Dairy or alternatives

Keeping kids’ teeth healthy

Cutting down on sugar is one way to help protect your kids’ teeth from decay. It’s important to teach kids healthy food choices and good oral hygiene care and to demonstrate these practices yourself. To lower the risks of cavities and other problems, dentists recommend:

  • Brushing teeth twice a day: Young children will need an adult’s help until they have the dexterity to use the brush correctly themselves, usually around the age of 6. Young children should use low-fluoride toothpaste or a very small amount of normal toothpaste, while older kids can use standard fluoride toothpaste. Brushing should take 2 minutes and cover all areas of the teeth, whether they prefer an electric or manual toothbrush.
  • Flossing daily: Flossing is important for reaching the spaces between teeth where food and plaque can build up. Your child’s dentist may suggest kid-friendly floss alternatives like a floss threader.
  • Drinking plenty of water: Water helps to rinse the mouth and keep active kids hydrated. Tap water and bottled water containing fluoride provides extra protection for teeth at safe levels for consumption.
  • Regular dental visits: It’s recommended that children see a dentist twice a year to check that their teeth and gums are free from problems, discuss any corrective or preventive treatments that could help them, and provide oral hygiene maintenance.


See a children’s dentist in Kelmscott

If you need any advice about caring for your child’s teeth, or they’re due for a check-up, get in touch with our friendly and experienced team at Kelmscott Dental today. Call (08) 9495 7999 or book an appointment online for caring children’s dentistry in Kelmscott, Armadale, Gosnells and other nearby areas.

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