Sugar is everywhere. And as a mom of three, I spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy negotiating with my kids about their food and trying to navigate them towards good choices. To be frank, it can be exhausting. A recent trip to the pool went something like this.
Son: “Mom, can we have a popsicle?”
Me (despite the fact that we have been here maybe 15 mins): “Sure”. I’m such a cool mom, right?
After an hour or so of swimming.
Son: “I’m thirsty. Can I have a root beer?”
Me: “You have a water bottle right here.”
Son: “But it’s boring.”
Me: “Then go swim.”
Son: “But I’m thirsty.”
Me: “ So drink your water.”
Son: “How about a lemonade? It has fruit.”
Me: “It has 40 grams of sugar. No. Have some water.”
He gives up, has no water and goes back to swimming. I win the battle on sugar but lose the battle on hydration. As soon as they call the end of the open swim session, it starts again.
Son: “Can we have ice cream? My friend is having it!”
Me: “No. You literally just had a popsicle.”
Son: “But I am dying of thirst.”
More back and forth ensues and we finally settle on smoothies. They are $6 each but at least they have real fruit. I’m feeling a bit worn down but happy to have made it through with limited sugar damage. After the pool, he goes to a friends’ house and the parents immediately take him to a local candy store that is giving away free samples and cotton candy. He comes home with a full on sugar binge. I give up, at least for the day.
I try not to worry, but I still do. While I don’t track my kid’s sugar as closely as I probably should, overall, American kids are consuming an average of 19 teaspoons per day, way more than the daily allowance of 6 teaspoons recommended by the American Heart Association. There is evidence to suggest this pattern can lead to long-term health issues, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), as well as cognitive decline and increased cancer risk.
The more immediate effect is on my son's behavior. After the candy store trip, he has much less focus and I witness his energy level spike and crash. Research studies are putting data behind these immediate cognitive and behavioral impacts and identifying broader implications. A large study out of Australia which included 4,000-5,000 children showed that children who had higher consumption of sugary beverages including sodas and juices performed more poorly on certain academic tests. Children’s health expert Michael Goran has found links between kids’ high sugar diets and problems with sleep, learning and emotional health.
Despite the health risks and effects on behavior, sugar is in many ways interwoven with childhood and happy memories. I would hate for my kids to miss out on the flurry of childhood birthday parties, holidays centered around sweets (Halloween - I love and hate you) and the seemingly endless parade of popsicle carts and trips to the ice cream store during the summertime. I feel the tension between wanting to enjoy these important family moments and social milestones while ensuring my kids are eating a healthy, well balanced diet that is so important to put them on a path to long-term health and overall well-being.
So in between the pops of sugar, I do my best to ensure meals and snacks are healthy and nutritious. This can be difficult when so much of what is stocked on our grocery shelves is packed with sugar as well. Sugar is added to countless food products including breads, dairy-based foods, condiments, nut butters, salad dressings and sauces. In fact, manufacturers add sugar to 74 percent of packaged foods sold in supermarkets.
While I am a fairly savvy shopper, sometimes it feels like I need a PhD in food science to understand ingredient lists and the types of sugar in most products. For example, there are at least 61 different names for sugar listed on food labels. These include common names such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup as well as dextrose, barley malt, rice syrup and maltose among others.
Adding to my confusion, some manufacturers use smaller amounts of three or four types of sugar in a single product so that sugars appear further down on the ingredients list. Labels on drinks that contain no fruit juice are adorned with images of apples and oranges and tout large amounts of vitamin C. Others claim “no added sugar” but bury any mention of artificial sweeteners in fine print. All these factors make it complicated to sift through the thousands of products at a grocery store in the quest for healthy items.
Which is why, whenever I take my kids to the grocery store, I do whatever I can to keep them on the perimeter focused on the fresh fruits and vegetables. We typically have success for a while but inevitably the cereal and snack aisle calls them like some invisible kid whisperer. A recent trip to the store went like this:
Son: “Mom! I love this cereal! Can we get it please?!?” As he points to the box of sugar laden cereal with a familiar character on the front (I’m not naming names) and hops from foot to foot with excitement.
Me: “No way, that is terrible for you.”
Son: “But it has this super cool toy! It’s my favorite trading card.”
Me: “Absolutely not. It is basically a box of candy.”
Son: “Well, I have a great idea. What if we buy it, dump out the cereal and I will just get the toy.”
Similar debates ensue as we pass the snack aisle, yogurt section and god forbid the candy rack at the checkout lane.
My son and I’s seemingly constant negotiation points to both an innate desire for sugary foods and also how hard it can be to break habits formed in childhood. There’s an increasing body of research that suggests sugar could be as addictive as some drugs and has similar effects on the brain. Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine which produce a reward response leading to a cycle of cravings.
This cycle is amplified by food brands that are tapping into kids' love for and addiction to sugar. Makers of sugary drinks disproportionately target young children across all forms of media including television, the internet, online games, sports/concert sponsorships, kids apps, children's clothing, branded toys and fast food toy giveaways. Food companies also use cartoon characters like Spiderman or SpongeBob in their marketing appeal to children and select spokespersons that children idolize. Kid influencers on YouTube are racking up billions of page views marketing junk food to fellow kids, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. A 2019 report released by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that nearly two-thirds of the $2.2 billion spent on marketing beverages to children was for beverages that contained added sweeteners. Additionally, the makers of fast food, breakfast cereals and carbonated beverages paid for 72 percent of food marketing towards children.
How can we parents compete with this onslaught of media? The truth is - we need help. Parents everywhere are begging for better options. We need nutritious food brands to help us in our daily struggle to encourage our kids into good food choices and break the cycle of sugar addiction. Instead of toys in sugary cereal, where are the toys hidden in bags of broccoli enticing our kids towards better health?
I am not alone in feeling frustrated by this situation. Consumers are no longer content with the endless options for highly processed foods with The International Food and Information Council Foundation finding the majority of consumers prefer foods they perceive are healthier and safer for the environment. Millennials are also willing to spend more for products that deliver on their evolving food values, values which are also shaping how they feed their families. Since the beginning of the pandemic, parents have prioritized more organic and low-sugar foods for their kids. As a result, the kid food and beverage sector is expected to be worth more than $58 billion by 2025 as millennials increase their demand for products designed for kids’ unique nutritional needs.
The good news is that innovative brands are rising to the challenge. There has been a marked increase in brands such as RXbar, LesserEvil, Mama Chia and Bare, offering products that are marketed as healthy with labels such as clean, plant-based or organic. Large retailers, such as Kroger and Amazon, are increasing their healthy food offerings to attract customers. Where available, low-sugar products are outpacing their higher-sugar competition, claiming meaningful market share and illustrating the growing demand for low-sugar products.
Since 2016, the healthy food industry has grown from about $700 billion to $811 billion today. While the $40 billion conventional-snacking market declined by 2 percent annually in the past three years, the $17 billion health and wellness snacking category, bolstered by fresh snacking products, rose 8 percent annually.
In my role at S2G, I have the wonderful opportunity to work with brands dedicated to creating healthier food products, and some who are specifically targeting kids. S2G portfolio company Once Upon a Farm, sells cold-pressed organic baby and kid foods with clean labels, no dairy, and no added sugar. While Once Upon a Farm started as a baby food company, they saw the end user had evolved and that there was rapidly growing interest and demand in the children’s nutrition sector for the types of products they were creating. The company just unveiled a brand refresh with bold and vibrant packaging that features fresh fruits and vegetables and one-of-a-kind animal characters.
When crafting their brand redesign, the company didn’t just seek out input from moms but also from the kids who would be consuming their products. The new look not only highlights the nutritious organic ingredients used in each recipe, but is aimed at drawing kids towards products that were made with their health in mind. Once Upon a Farm immediately started seeing results online and on the shelf propelling them to become the largest and fastest growing plant-based kid nutrition company.
Perhaps even more telling is the customer feedback they get on the incredible level of child engagement with their products. I can attest. My kids are (thankfully) hooked on Magic Velvet Mango.
Our sugar debates still continue, but I see signs of progress. My kids are learning to read labels to look for the amounts of sugar and added sugar. I’m trying to teach them to decipher marketing messages versus facts and understand how they might be influenced by what they see in the media. It's certainly a journey and one that can be made smoother by brands that align with my values and take care to communicate in ways that are transparent.
I hope other brands will be inspired by Once Upon A Farm’s success to offer healthier alternatives and to rethink how they brand and market their products to kids. It’s time to flip the script on the traditional ways that food companies have promoted unhealthy products to kids and for better-for-you brands to use those same techniques to encourage kids to make good food choices. Parents are ready and waiting for more brands to help us end the great sugar debate.
To learn more about Once Upon A Farm’s brand evolution, check out our recent Where We Grow From Here podcast, A Better Story Starts Here with Katie Marston, Chief Marketing Officer of Once Upon A Farm.