Sugar Babies

Sweets are the bane of my family’s existence.

Last night, my son Eli was doing a word puzzle. He asked for help finding the word cake. I came over to take a look and discovered that in addition to cake, he’d been instructed to look for cookie, pizza, fries, soda, and gum.

Really, is this necessary? Must bad-for-you food lurk everywhere?

Sometimes, I feel like the world is conspiring to feed my kids sugar. An ice cream truck (it also sells candy) parks outside of Eli’s school every afternoon and circles our block most evenings. Storekeepers hand my kids lollipops. Packaged cookies and cake find their way to every school event. Fruit-punch juice boxes and donuts are the default snack at weekend soccer games. According to recent research, this isn’t just annoying. It’s shaping an environment that works against establishing good lifetime eating habits. America is fat. We seem determined to make it fatter.

I’m hardly a dessert foe. I have a giant sweet tooth and I love to bake. Come to my house for dinner, and you’re likely to face a pan of brownies coming out of the oven. But this only makes me more resentful of all those other sugar purveyors out there. I want to be the one giving my kids sweets! For one thing, homemade desserts seem healthier and more virtuous to me than store-bought ones. At least I know what ingredients are going in, and high-fructose corn syrup isn’t one of them. Also, my kids and I like to bake together—they measure and mix and of course lick the bowl. Most crucially, though, sweets make the best bribes (I mean “rewards”). And since my husband and I are the ones on duty for the evening witching hours and the long hot weekend days, we don’t want everyone else using up our ammunition. We need sweets in our arsenal.

When Eli and Simon are high on sugar, they bump into walls and fall off jungle gyms and hit each other. When they crash, they whine and fuss and I can’t stand them. My inclination has been to blame other adults for our oversugared predicament. Since my kids and their friends are too young (3 and 6) to be paying for groceries or lining up at the ice cream truck, they need a buyer. But according to a new study by the Institute of Medicine, the parents around me are relatively innocent. The world is conspiring to give my kids sugar.

The Institute of Medicine, the medical advisory arm of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at 123 published studies that addressed the links between how food is marketed and what children prefer to eat and what children get to eat. Food companies spend about $10 billion a year selling to kids. It’s no surprise that they get results, but the numbers are still disturbing. Desserts, salty snacks, and fast food account for 20 percent of the calories in the average child’s diet. Soft drinks add up to another 10 percent—a figure that has doubled since 1980. In the past 25 years, food companies have introduced about 600 new products designed for kids. Only about a quarter of them are healthy—baby food, bread, bottled water. Yuck.

Should we have a government policy about dessert? On the surface, it’s a loony idea. Parents, after all, have the responsibility to feed their kids well. But, of course, that gets harder as your kids get older and buy food for themselves. In a June article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Michelle Mello, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, compares the government’s hands-off approach to regulating sweet and fatty foods to the “early days of tobacco regulation.” To be sure, she and her co-authors are careful to say there are differences. No one has proved that sugar is highly addictive—though some research suggests that it triggers chemical changes in the brain that induce further consumption. And there’s no food equivalent to secondhand smoke. But in both arenas, advertising and marketing go after a vulnerable population and can establish patterns of consumption for life. Fifty countries regulate TV advertising for kids. Australia and the Netherlands don’t allow ads for sweets that are aimed at children. Sweden doesn’t allow the use of cartoon characters to sell sweets. The only step the United States takes is to limit TV advertising to 12 minutes per hour of children’s programs during weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends.

If the idea of more regulation sounds paternalistic to you, as it did to me, consider Mello’s response. “We’re more likely to make good choices when it’s easier to do so,” she wrote to me via e-mail (disclosure: We went to law school together). Disproportionate advertising for junk food “cuts against that. For example, it makes it that much harder for a stressed-out parent to get her kid out of the grocery store with a cartful of healthy food.”

I still think parents need to have more backbone, but I certainly understand the temptation to placate. My younger son Simon inherited the family sweet tooth. Last week, he asked me to tell him a Superman story on the walk to school. After Superman had an adventure in the subway, I told Simon that he had gone home to eat dinner.

“What did he eat?” Simon asked.

“Well, Superman needs to be really healthy and strong so he can keep saving people,” I said. “What do you think he should eat for dinner?”

“Chocolate croissants,” Simon said (actually, he said “crah-soangs“).

“Really—for his whole dinner? You think that’ll make him healthy and strong?”

“Yes. He needs to eat chocolate crah-soangs for dinner and for a drink he needs to drink beer!”

Since this is what I have to contend with, I have stopped taking Simon to the supermarket. The cartoon characters turned sugar-cereal pushers made him a demon every time. Maybe Mello is right and we could all use a little more help from the government in protecting our kids from their worst eating instincts. In the meantime, though, our world is saturated with sugar, and personal responsibility is all we’ve got. I know it’s like battling the sea—a sea of corn syrup, as the writer Michael Pollan has extensively shown. But think of those lovely healthy cheese sticks waiting for you in the grocery store. Or if you need to give a kid a prize, how about superballs and little dolls and action figures? Let’s hear it for useless plastic objects. My kids can play with them while they wait for the brownies we’ve baked to cool.

Addendum, July 14: My colleague Andy Bowers and his 6-year-old daughter have produced the perfect podcast for parents and their sugar-crazed kids. Andy explains, “It’s called The Sugar Monster, and it was born from a character we started at our dinner table. He’s basically reverse psychology incarnate—he insists that kids eat nothing but sugar, and the kids in turn can infuriate him by eating healthy food.” Listen here.