The Truth About Sugar and Toddlers

The amount of sugar in our food is a hot topic. Toddlebox nutrition and early feeding expert Sarah Keogh explains what to watch out for, and how to make low-sugar choices for your toddler!

What is ‘added sugar’? 

From traditional sweet foods like cakes and sweets to foods like yoghurts and cereals, people are paying more attention to what’s on the label, especially when it comes to sugar. There is a big difference between sugar that is naturally occurring, and sugar that has been added to food. Sugar that is naturally occurring in foods includes fruit sugars and also naturally occurring lactose, which is found in milk and yoghurt. Added sugar is any sugar that is added to food.


What’s in a name?

Just because a label doesn’t say ‘sugar’ doesn’t mean there isn’t any! The key word is added. Even a ‘natural’ sugar like maple syrup counts as ‘added sugar’, because you are adding it to a food.

Added sugar can include:

  • White or brown sugar (sucrose)
  • Glucose syrup
  • Agave syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Rice syrup
  • Coconut sugar
  • Honey


Sugar adds calories to what we eat but without adding any extra nutrition. It’s fairly easy to reduce the amount of sugary treats, and to choose foods with lower levels of sugar for your toddler!

What sugars are suitable for toddlers?

Milk. The good news is that sugar naturally found in milk is perfectly okay for toddlers. Milk naturally contains a sugar called lactose and when you look at labels on milk, you will see sugar listed. The sugar listed on the label includes both naturally occurring and added sugar. It’s important to check how much of the sugar comes from lactose and how much is ‘added sugar’. Again, in natural yoghurt, there is little or no added sugar.  The sugar that is present is the natural milk sugar lactose.

Yoghurt. If you choose fruit yoghurts then the sugar content usually increases. This is partly due to the natural sugar in the fruit, but it’s also important to be aware that some additional sugar may be added to make the yoghurt taste sweeter. Check the labels for fruit yoghurts and choose the one with the lowest level. The best option for toddlers is to choose natural yoghurt and add some fruit or stewed fruit (cooked without sugar).

Fruit & Juices. The sugar naturally found in fruit is also suitable for toddlers. Although fruit is great for toddlers, fruit juices can add quite a bit of sugar, so limit these. If you are giving juice to your toddler, dilute it well with water (one part juice to four or five parts water) and only serve it at meals. Apart from the sugar, fruit juices can be quite acidic which is not a good combination for little teeth. (Check out Your Toddler’s Teeth for Toddlebox top tips on mouth and dental hygiene!)

Veggies. Beans, tomatoes, onions and other vegetables all have natural sugars. These are suitable for toddlers. Tinned beans such as tinned chickpeas and kidney beans mention sugar on the label, but this is usually just the natural sugar in the beans themselves rather than anything added. Check the label for any added sugar to be sure!

The difference between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar

To find out if there is added sugar or naturally occurring sugar in the food, have a look at the ingredient list.  If there is sugar in the list then at least some of the sugar on the label is added.  If there is no sugar (or sugary foods like syrup, agave etc.) on the label then the sugar is most likely naturally occurring sugar.

How much is too much?

For a product to be labelled ‘low in sugar’ it must contain no more than 5g of sugars per 100g for solids, or 2.5g of sugars per 100ml for liquids. What is considered ‘high in sugar’ varies. Generally, anything over 15-22g of sugar per 100g is considered a lot of sugar. Check the label to see if it is naturally occurring or added sugar.

Watch out for…

Foods like sweets, chocolates, biscuits and sugary drinks are not good for toddlers and should be occasional treats.  About 80% of the sugar we eat comes from these foods, so limiting them is a good way of reducing a toddler’s sugar intake.

When you’re shopping, check out the labels of cereals, flavoured yoghurts and treats aimed at toddlers as there can be added sugars in these foods. There is no need to ban added sugar. Part of how we socialise involves eating sweet foods, and the occasional treat is no harm. The best approach is to follow guidelines for a healthy balanced diet for toddlers, check labels on packaged foods and keep treat foods as treats.


Portions that are too big impacts on the amount of sugar your toddler eats. Get the lowdown in the Guide to Toddler-Friendly Portions and the Guide to Healthy Eating Habits!

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