Consumption and sources of sugars in the diets of British schoolchildren: are high-sugar diets nutritionally inferior?



Data files of the food intakes of 2705 schoolchildren surveyed in 1983 (DoH, 1989a) were reanalysed to provide an estimate of the total intake of sugars and major sources of sugars in the diet. The relationships between intake of sugars, nutrients and nutrient density were examined by comparing between tertiles, firstly of total sugars (g/day) and subsequently of percentage energy from sugars. The results are presented separately for boys and girls in two age-groups (10–11 years and 14–15 years). The estimated mean intake of sugars (123 g/day, s.d. 42 g) was equivalent to 23% of dietary energy. Major sources were confectionery (18%), table sugar (16%), cakes and biscuits (13%), milk (10%), soft drinks (9%) and puddings (9%).

Nutrient intakes were not significantly lower, and indeed were often higher, in those groups consuming most sugars, by either method of defining tertiles. Energy intake appeared to be the major influence on intakes of nutrients. Nutrient densities (mg or μg/MJ) showed different trends: vitamin A, vitamin C and thiamin concentrations were similar across all tertiles, while those for calcium and riboflavin tended to rise with increasing sugars intake and those for iron and nicotinic acid tended to fall, although not all of these differences were significant in all age/sex groups at the 1% level. There was a significant reciprocal (inverse) relationship between sugars and percentage energy from fat. Iron intakes were low in girls, irrespective of consumption of sugars. These data therefore provide little support for the ‘empty calorie’ hypothesis

Schoolchildren with low energy intakes in combination with high proportional intakes of sugar may constitute a theoretical at-risk group, particularly with regard to iron intake. However, because the possibility cannot be excluded that habitual food intake may be underrepresented in dietary records, further investigation of such groups by methods incorporating clinical/biochemical assessments are warranted.