After a long weekend which for so many kids (and adults, too!) will have been chock-full of sugar in the form of chocolate eggs, this should be a good time to get a few facts straight about the sweet stuff in children’s diets.
After all, if you’re a parent and you’ve been reading about sugar in school puddings over the Bank Holiday, you might be feeling seriously confused.
First, a few basics about sugar. The sugars that occur naturally in milk and fresh fruit are one kind of sugar (‘intrinsic’, if you want to get technical). The stuff you find in cooked and dried fruit, fruit juice and in cakes, biscuits, sweets, squash and soft drinks, is another kind (‘non-milk extrinsic, or NMES for short). This form is often also called ‘added’ sugar.
The Department of Health recommends that we don’t have too much added sugar. Of all of the energy we get from our food and drink (calories, to put it another way), it recommends no more than 11% of that energy should come from the added stuff.
In primary school, a child’s lunch should contain around 530 calories. Apply the 11% rule, and that means the average school lunch shouldn’t contain more than 15.5g of added (NMES) sugar (if you want to think about the whole day, the average child at primary school needs around 1767 calories; the 11% rule means no more than 52g of added sugar in a day).
That means schools can’t put any cake on the menu with more than 15.5g of sugar in, right? Wrong. National nutritional standards for schools allow cooks to be flexible in designing their menus, and to help children learn about the range of foods which make for a balanced diet. They do this by measuring the average lunch in a school’s menu cycle (which is normally 3-4 weeks long). So, a school can offer a cake or pud which is higher in added sugar on one day, but for their average meal to meet the nutritional standards, other days will have to be much lower in sugar – so it all balances out. Put another way, your child’s school won’t be meeting the national standards if it’s serving up cake with lots of added sugar every day of the week.
Of course, the standards also help keep sugar down by banning confectionary, promoting healthier drinks, and helping make sure that portion sizes are sensible. We advise schools to get different pud options on the menu and to sweeten puddings with fruit wherever they can – as this helps pupils towards their five-a-day fruit and veg target at the same time. And the standards on sugar have worked – the amount of sugar kids are eating in school meals has fallen significantly since the standards came into force (by more than a third in secondary schools).
It’s completely possible to make delicious puds for kids which give them less than 15.5g of added sugar – take a look at our recipes for schools here. Try them at home* if the Easter bunny’s left you feeling sweet enough for now…
* Just don’t forget to make the quantities smaller – these recipes are designed for school cooks, so they make enough for lots of children!
Claire’s one of our nutritionists. Email Claire.