From infant foods and juices to condiments like ketchup, sugar seems to be in just about everything. It’s natural to worry that sweet foods will forever shift a child’s taste preferences for the worse. So let’s dive into the sticky, messy story behind sweets and sugars and the impact on a child’s taste preferences.
Note: Food is better than no food. If you are experiencing financial distress, lack access to unprocessed foods, or are experiencing food apartheid, sugary food is better than no food. Do your best for your family within the constraints of your reality and don’t look back.
Looking to prevent picky eating? Consider watching one our online course on How to Start Solids & Raise a Happy Eater. Have a sugar obsessed toddler or picky eater? See Toddlers at the Table or Reverse Picky Eating.
In general, it’s recommended to delay the introduction of added sugars until 2 years of age. Delaying added sugar introduction could help provide the most nutritious and varied diet possible during your child’s first couple of years and establish more positive health habits for years to come. While babies can consume sugar after their first birthday, it can be beneficial to wait until closer to the 2nd birthday to introduce sugar and sweeteners (including agave, date syrup, and maple syrup). In excess, sweeteners like honey can reduce the diversity of foods your child is interested in eating and even increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes and negatively impact cardiovascular health.
Humans – and particularly infants – are innately programmed to prefer sweet, salty, and umami (savory) flavors; we learn to like sour, bitter, and other flavor profiles through exposure. It’s very normal for children to have a natural, built-in preference for sweets. Although, a growing body of literature has discovered that infants who are breastfed have more of an affinity for stronger flavors that are consumed by the mother (specifically garlic, anise/caraway, carrot, eucalyptus, and mint).
When it comes to research, this is hard to answer. The preference for sweets is a natural, built-in mechanism with a functional, evolutionary purpose: provide our bodies with quick, easily-digestible energy for immediate use. In addition, breastmilk is innately sweet, and it is postulated that this is a survival strategy, so infants are drawn to drink mother’s milk.
While it’s unclear if a correlation exists between exposure and preference for sweets, research has found that children prefer sweet drinks at the level of sweetness to which they were exposed. This means that kids preferred sweetness at a level they were familiar with, and more exposure to a certain level of sweetness may lead to a preference for that amount of sweetness.
As soon as possible! Flavor perception starts in-utero, during pregnancy. In fact, one study suggested that when pregnant moms drank carrot juice during their pregnancy, their babies ate more cereal cooked with carrot juice, compared to the study group that didn’t drink carrot juice. Infants also are exposed to tastes through amniotic fluid, as well as the fluid secreted by the Montgomery glands that lubricate the nipples. While more research is needed, this makes a good case that mom’s diet and self-care during pregnancy can positively impact baby.
What’s more: babies may be able to taste different flavor compounds in breast milk. While commonly viewed as a static food, breast milk is quite dynamic and variable in its nutritional content and taste. Research suggests that breast milk can carry flavors of various foods, such as garlic and other natural flavors.
Bottom line: take care of yourself (or your partner!) during pregnancy and post-partum by eating healthy, diverse, and nutritious foods to set the foundation for baby’s taste preferences.
Babies and children naturally love sweet flavors, so focus on exposing the lesser-appreciated bitterness in greens and the acidity in fruits.
The most effective way to help kiddos explore and appreciate different flavors? Create plenty of opportunities (and know that many will fail!) and model healthy eating behaviors. As a parent, your habits and attitudes around food impact your child’s. Children are more likely to eat foods that their caregivers eat during a family meal!
Occasional sweets are completely fine. They are a symbol of celebration and totally pleasurable and delicious. Balance is key: avoid restricting sweets, which can lead to sweets-obsessions, and avoid over-offering sweets where it displaces other foods and flavors.
Back in the day, when humans worked much harder to obtain their food, sweet foods were a scarce and rare. Nowadays, sweet-tasting foods have saturated the food environment, from candy bars at the check-out line, sugar-laced ketchup, and more. In general, we – kids and adults – are consuming 3 to 6 times more added sugar than recommended.
Sugar-rich foods tend to be nutrient-poor, take the place of other more nutritious and diverse foods, and can be detrimental to our teeth and our bodies. Excessive intake of sweets is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and dental caries. It may lead to a heightened preference for sweets and decreased intake of other foods and flavors.
No, in no way should you be concerned about the sweetness of breast milk.
Breast milk is sweet but not nearly as sweet as fruit juice, soda, or a cookie. Formula tends to be less sweet than breast milk but can vary depending on the brand and type. The sweetness in breast milk and formula serves a purpose: to provide a growing baby with a source of carbohydrates and easily digestible and necessary sugars to fuel their rapid growth and development. When it’s time to transition a child to cow’s milk, be assured that the naturally-occurring sugars in cow’s milk are not a concern when it comes to sweet preferences.
There are some significant differences between fresh fruit, dried fruit, and fruit juices. Fresh fruit is nutrient-rich and contains ample water and fiber content. Do not worry about the natural sugars in fresh fruit and let your child eat as much as they want.
Dried fruit has fewer nutrients (due to processing) and may have added sugars and preservatives, though there isn’t a ton of research to show that fresh or dried fruit consumption leads to a preference for sweets. Regardless, dried fruit tends to be sweeter and denser in naturally-occurring fruit sugars than fresh fruit. Just think about the difference between grapes and raisins! Hold off on serving dried fruit until age 2 if you can and be sure to utilize our free First Foods® database to learn how to decrease the choking risk of foods like raisins.
Juice, including fresh fruit juice, typically lacks fiber but does contain various nutrients. However, it is very easy to consume a lot and take in too much sugar in one sitting because it’s in liquid form. Plus, drinking juice often can displace other more nutritious foods and drinks. Because juice is so palatable, frequently offering it can encourage a preference for juice and discourage drinking water. Furthermore, research suggests having a preference for sour foods/drinks may be associated with increased fruit intake. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting all fruit juice to under 4 ounces a day for children between 1 and 3 years of age.
When it comes to the sugar and fiber situation, consider this: 1 cup of orange juice contains about 3-4 oranges, but rarely will anyone eat so many oranges in one sitting! Since it also lacks fiber, the fruit sugars are rapidly digested and absorbed by the body leading to a yo-yo effect on blood sugars. Ever drank juice on an empty stomach and crashed later? That’s your blood sugars dancing. Smoothies are slightly better than fruit juice as they still contain fiber; however, because the fruit is blended down and in liquid form, it’s similarly easy to consume too much sugar in one sitting.
It is our strong opinion that it is best to wait to serve juice until age two and even then, to limit the amount offered to minimize sugar (including natural sugar) in your child’s diet. Juice of any kind should never be given to babies younger than 12 months of age, unless directed to do so by a health provider in very specific circumstances.
Bottom line: Fruit is better than no fruit but try to wait until age 2 to offer dried fruit and juice. Where possible, try to limit fruit juices and treat the occasional smoothie as a part of a meal or snack.
Honey is a high-risk food for any infant under 12 months of age due to the risk of botulism. After 12 months of age, honey is allowed for babies. However, given that honey is naturally high in sugar and doesn’t provide essential nutrients for your child’s development and growth, consider holding off until 2 years of age before introducing (more on this below!). For more details on the ins and outs of honey, check out the honey page in our free food database.
Overall, information regarding sugar alternatives for children—especially infants and toddlers—is quite limited. Some research suggests that the use of sugar alternatives may negatively impact your child’s taste reception, blood sugars, and gut microbiome. For this reason, avoid sugar substitutes where possible.
There are many sources of added sugars in the diet. The most common ones include cakes, waffles, cookies, muffins, candy, chocolate, honey, syrups, sweetened drinks, jams, spreads, jellies, and marmalades. Added sugars are also often added to foods that are not overtly sweet, such as sauces, salad dressings, crackers, bread, seasoning mixtures, and spaghetti sauce.
In the US, added sugars amounts are specified on the food label under “added sugars.” Also, if a form of added sugar (see below) is one of the first few ingredients listed, know that that food likely contains significant amounts of sugar.
Common added sugar ingredients include:
High fructose corn syrup
Brown rice syrup
Barley malt syrup
Cane juice crystals
Fruit juice concentrate
As always, the bigger goal is to have a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food. Over-restricting sweets creates a feeling of scarcity and may lead to feeling obsessed about a food. On the contrary, treating sugary foods normally and indulging from time to time can help that food feel less like a forbidden fruit, or a reward for a specific behavior (we all put rewards on pedestals, right?). The goal is to strike a healthy balance. Over-restricting sugar and sweets can make kids more preoccupied with those sweets than they were initially and lead to increased food intake – even when they’re not hungry.
Adie, 23 months, tastes ice cream for the first time
Nkosi, 12 months, eats a cup cake for the first time.
Every family is different, so find the mealtime structure that works best for you. As mentioned above, try to avoid offering sugary foods and sweets until at least 2 years of age, but if you can wait longer, such as until 4 years, that can work well too. Having older siblings might expose your younger child to sweets earlier, and that’s okay, as long as you have structure around meals and sweets.
Here’s how you can have structure around sweets:
Aim to offer sweets and dessert only at the table at scheduled meal or snack times.
Treat desserts and sweets just like other types of food. Avoid making it a big deal.
Avoid offering dessert as a special occasion or reward. In the same logic, avoid using dessert as part of any punishment. Avoid saying, “If you eat your x then you can have dessert.”
Never require your child to finish their meal in order to have dessert.
If your child is 3 years old (or older) and is already preoccupied with sweets, consider offering a small serving of dessert with the rest of the meal to neutralize your kid’s attitude toward sweets. Note: we only recommend you do this if your child is already preoccupied with sweets.
After your child’s 4th birthday, provide occasional unlimited access to sweets from time to time, like during holidays and celebrations. Allow them the opportunity to self-regulate, eat until they’re satisfied, and learn that sweets are not a scarcity. Your child may overeat sweets, that is okay! This experience will help them learn to avoid doing that next time and set them up for a healthier relationship with food in the future. If your child overeats in one of these unlimited experiences, you can open up a conversation about how sugar can “gunk up” our bodies and make us feel icky sometimes and then talk about how eating a wide variety of foods tends to make us feel good.
Remember that you, as a parent, decide how often you want to buy desserts and sweets. Your child cannot eat things you don’t have in the home! All families are different, and some are comfortable eating desserts regularly while others prefer it less frequently.
Lastly, keep in mind that your child will naturally appreciate the taste of sweetness – humans are programmed this way. The goal is to have a healthy and guilt-free relationship with food while eating a nutritious diet.
Venus Kalami, MNSP, RD
Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD
Kimberly Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT
Rachel Ruiz, MD Board-Certified General Pediatrician & Pediatric Gastroenterologist
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