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The Bittersweet Effects of Refined Sugar on Children’s Health

Refined sugars are famously known to cause various negative health effects. Interestingly, it has also been found to affect the emotions and behaviours of children.

A young girl happily picking out colourful lollipops

There are two things about sugar that the general public already knows. First, it tastes great. Second, it’s everywhere, even in savoury foods. But there’s a third thing everyone should know: refined sugar is bad for health.

As adults, we have often read or heard about the severe impacts of refined sugar on our health, but are you aware of its dangers to children? Not only can sugar affect children physically, but it can also impact them emotionally. Let’s break down the negative effects of refined sugar on children and find healthier alternatives. 

Refined Sugar vs Natural Sugar 

Both taste sweet, so what is the difference? As the name suggests, refined sugar is the type of sugar that has been processed. During the refining process, sugar cane or sugar beets are extracted until they lose their natural molasses to create refined sugar. This is easily absorbed by the body. 

Refined sugar is different from natural sugar as the latter is found in milk, fruits and vegetables. Basically, the sugar you get from supermarkets for cooking or baking is refined sugar.

In contrast, natural sugar is important for a healthy and well-balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables contain fructose and lactose, which get absorbed at a slower rate than their processed counterparts. These types of sugar sustain the body and keep the metabolism stabilised. 

Negative Health Effects of Refined Sugar

Because sugar exists in almost everything we eat, avoiding it is impossible. We consume it when we drink a glass of juice or eat a slice of cake. Even the foods we consider healthy may contain refined sugar as one of their ingredients. Therefore, our body can gather refined sugar without us realising it.

The average Malaysian adult consumes four teaspoons of table sugar and three teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk added into beverages everyday, according to the Malaysian Adult Nutrition Survey 2002/2003.

Two glasses of boba tea with straws and spoons on a grey surface
Refined sugar can be found in sweetened drinks like bubble tea.

The carbohydrates in this processed sugar can indirectly lead to several potentially fatal diseases. For example, it is a commonly known fact that excess sugar can cause obesity. Furthermore, the carbohydrates in it would be converted to fat by the liver. In turn, the accumulation of fat can cause fatty liver. The condition contributes to diabetes, a risk factor for heart disease. 

Because of refined sugar’s negative impacts on health, the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines suggest a total daily intake of not more than 50g. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests limiting daily intake to no more than six teaspoons or 24 grams for women and no more than nine teaspoons or 36 grams for men. 

The Negative Effects of Refined Sugar on Children

A partial view of a woman’s hand giving a warning gesture to a young girl blowing a raspberry
Too much processed sugar can cause behavioural problems in children.

When it comes to children, AHA recommends that children ages two to 18 should take less than six teaspoons or 25 grams of refined sugar per day. Children are also advised to drink no more than a cup of sugary beverages per week.

Unfortunately, many children crave sugary drinks, or their parents give them sweets for dessert. One can of soda contains approximately 41.8 grams of sugar, a 42-gram chocolate bar has 21 grams of sugar, while 2/3 cup of vanilla ice cream has 18 grams of sugar.

Like adults, children who consume too much of it are at risk of obesity, making them more prone to heart diseases. But with young children, it can also affect them mentally. A diet high in sugar can lead to an increased risk of precocious puberty.

1. Hyperactivity and Difficulty in Focusing 

As it’s quick to enter the bloodstream, refined sugar is able to make rapid changes in glucose levels and accelerate adrenaline production. At its core, adrenaline is a hormone generated by stress and functions to provide a short-term energy boost to help cope with distressing situations. Consequently, the adrenaline charge can cause not only excitement but also tremor, anxiety and concentration problems in children. 

When a child consumes sugar and it’s absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, their energy and hyperactivity levels increase. They soon drop as blood sugar levels lower due to insulin regulation. This is when they demand for more sweet foods but lack the appetite for regular meals, creating a vicious cycle of sugar overconsumption and excitable behaviour.

2. Neurobehavioral Problems 

Besides sugar, sweetened snacks or drinks are usually made with synthetic colours. Over the years, multiple studies have been trying to determine whether or not synthetic food dyes and behaviour problems in children are related. Their findings suggest that there is indeed a connection. 

One study by researchers at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Iran, investigated the effects of the artificial colour, yellow no.5, on rats. The study has revealed that the synthetic dye causes changes in the rats’ medial prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for the animals’ cognitive performance. It believes that it may similarly affect children, triggering neurobehavioral problems in them.

How to Reduce Refined Sugar Intake in Children 

There are things adults can do to prevent children from consuming too much refined sugar: 

Check ingredient labels

Asian attractive happy woman choosing and reading food labels with ingredients on a box from its shelf at the supermarket or convenience store.
Always read the ingredient labels to check for hidden refined sugars in packaged food.

Pay more attention to the ingredient labels and determine how much refined sugar is added to your children’s foods. Other names used for refined sugar include granulated sugar, table sugar or white sugar. It may also appear as different names such as: 

  1. Brown sugar
  2. Corn sweetener
  3. Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
  4. Fruit juice concentrates
  5. Honey
  6. Invert sugar
  7. Malt sugar
  8. Molasses
  9. Dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose 

Moreover, adults must carefully check for any synthetic colouring. Ingredient labels list them using phrases such as tart yellow, sunset yellow, bright blue and carmine. Some food dyes are made with organic sources, so try choosing products that contain them.

Use healthier alternatives to refined sugar 

Instead of candies, give children fresh fruits that contain natural sugar. If you bake, cut the amount of sugar you use. Avoid yoghurts or cereals with added sugar. Use propolis as a sweetener. One of the many varieties of honey, propolis has been known to have anti-inflammatory, anti-infection and anti-viral properties. 

Start early 

Children are naturally drawn to colourful sweets and beverages, so trying to prevent them from consuming refined sugar can be hard. One way to do it is to start them early. Introduce young children to fruits and limit their sugar intake so they’ll get used to it.

Found in numerous foods and drinks, refined sugar and its health risks can creep up on you or your children without you knowing. Adults need to set a good example by making a conscious decision to be healthier. Be more mindful of what you put in your and your children eat by reading the ingredient labels and choosing healthier alternatives to refined sugar.

This is an adaptation of an article, “天天糖果汽水养出“愤怒宝宝”, which first appeared on the Health123 website.


  1. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 2022. The sweet danger of sugar [online]. Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar> [Accessed 30 June 2022] 
  2. American Heart Association. 2021. The Sugary 6 Infographic [online]. Available at: <https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/sugary-six> [Accessed 30 June 2022] 
  3. European Journal of Paediatric Dentistry. 2019. The effect of added sugars on children’s health outcomes: Obesity, Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome (OSAS), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Chronic Diseases [online]. Available at: <https://www.ejpd.eu/pdf/EJPD_2019_20_2_9.pdf> [Accessed 30 June 2022] 
  4. Biomedcentral. 2022. Potential impacts of synthetic food dyes on activity and attention in children: a review of the human and animal evidence [online]. Available at: <https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-022-00849-9> [Accessed 30 June 2022] 
  5. UC San Diego School of Medicine. 2021. Understanding Natural Versus Added Sugars. [online] Available at <https://chear.ucsd.edu/blog/understanding-natural-versus-added-sugars> [Accessed 1 July 2022] 

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