Too much sugar!

An interview with Silke Restemeyer from the German Nutrition Society (DGE) on excess sugar in children’s diets
Interview: Jasmin Priesnitz | Illustration: Friederike Schlenz | Photo: German Nutrition Society (DGE) | 2019/2

In 2018, the KiGGS study on the health of children and adolescents in Germany reported that the international incidence of overweight and obese children and adolescents has been on the rise since the mid-1970s. The DGE, the German Obesity Society (DAG) and the German Diabetes Society (DDG) published the consensus paper ‘Quantitative recommendation on sugar intake in Germany’, in which they illustrate the risks, among other things, of a diet high in sugar.

What are the possible consequences of being overweight at a young age, and what are the risks associated with children consuming excess sugar?

Dietary habits are formed in the first few years of life. It’s often the case that overweight children become overweight adults. Extremely overweight children and adolescents, in particular, keep on gaining weight and the programmes designed to help them are only so effective.

Foods and drinks with added sugar are often lacking in nutrients and contain empty calories. Sugar also increases the risk of tooth decay. The excessive and regular consumption of sugar leads to people being overweight, in addition to numerous diseases associated with carrying excess weight, which include type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. A diet low in sugar is the optimal choice for a healthy lifestyle.

Why are so many children in Germany overweight? What is the biggest issue associated with children’s diets?

Children who consume high-calorie foods and drinks and don’t get their bodies moving enough tend to become overweight, even though they’re still growing. In addition to genetic predisposition, the eating behaviour and level of physical activity within a child’s family also play a role.

Interestingly, children whose families regularly sit down to eat together tend to have a lower BMI and consume a healthier diet overall. Research conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Mannheim backs this up. Several studies on the quality of family mealtimes have shown that, for example, a positive atmosphere at the dinner table can also lead to children consuming a healthy diet.

How bad are processed foods for children? Which products contain hidden sugar that we wouldn’t expect?

Processed foods often contain high amounts of sugar, salt, and saturated fats. A quick look at the label not only tells you what ingredients the product contains, but also the quantities thereof.

Unfortunately, foods that we wouldn’t expect to contain sugar often do, such as ketchup, barbecue marinades, salad dressings, and convenience meals such as frozen pizza. Processed and ready-to-eat foods usually have a very high sugar content, especially foods that are aimed at children such as fruit yoghurt, fruit quark, and breakfast cereals. Nectars and fruit juices also contain a lot of sugar.

So-called ‘free sugars’ are added to the food we eat. Which sweeteners are considered free sugars?

The sweet taste present in certain foods can be attributed to a number of ingredients. The most widespread sweetener is common white sugar (sucrose). This is frequently added to food. However, brown sugar, honey, agave syrup, coconut sugar, other syrups, and the sugar in fruit should be treated the same as common white sugar.

Does food packaging in Germany have to label the sugar content? What should we look out for?

Make sure to carefully read the food label. The total sugar content is listed under the nutritional values on all packaged foods. However, sugar is not always labelled as such in the ingredients list: sugar hides behind many other names. In addition to ingredients with ‘sugar’ in their names, food manufacturers use sweeteners that are often hard to pinpoint as sugar because of their complicated chemical descriptions.

Furthermore, manufacturers are not legally obliged to indicate what amounts of these individual types of sugar are used. A good way to find your way around this is to observe the order in which the ingredients are listed. If sugar varieties are listed towards the beginning of the list, this indicates that there is a high content of the sugar in question. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to estimate the sugar content if different types of sugar are listed in different places throughout the ingredients.

Does the excess consumption of sugary drinks pose a real risk to children in Germany?

Yes. Today, experts are aware that the excess consumption of sugary drinks (soft drink, fruit juice, nectar, iced tea, cordial etc.) is partially to blame for the increasing number of overweight children. Children who consume too many sweet drinks can experience a surplus of energy, which can lead to an increase in body weight and put them at a heightened risk of developing related diseases. Sugary drinks don’t make you feel full, so it’s easy to overconsume them and end up with surplus energy. Energy balance aside, there’s also a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Nectars, fruit juice drinks, and refreshing drinks, in particular, are generally not recommended. These drinks are high in calories, are not filling and, as a general rule, offer no essential nutrients.

And how should parents regulate the consumption of fruit juice?

Fruit juice made with 100% pure fruit is high in vitamins and minerals. However, it is also high in fructose and calories. If a child regularly drinks pure fruit juice, there is a risk that they are consuming more energy than they actually need.

What can parents do to keep their children healthy if they fear they may be consuming too much sugar? What do they need to look out for?

Feed your children a balanced diet high in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit and wholegrain products, and let them reach for as few processed foods as possible.

The DGE’s ‘10 guidelines for a wholesome diet’, updated in 2017, recommends reducing overall sugar consumption. You can start reducing your children’s consumption of free sugars by only letting them consume highly-processed and sweetened foods in moderation, and by replacing sugary drinks with water or unsweetened tea. It’s best to not let children get accustomed to a diet high in sugar – and the associated sweet taste – in the first place. Packaged foods that are aimed at children are often high in sugar and therefore not recommended.


Silke Restemeyer

studied home economics and nutritional science at Giessen University. She works in the Public Relations Division of the German Nutrition Society, has two children aged nine and 14, and lives with her family in Bonn.

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