The AHA say children and adolescents aged 2-18 years should consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar each day.
Added sugars are sugars and syrups - including fructose, glucose, and high-fructose corn syrup - that are added to foods and drinks during processing or preparation, mainly for taste and preservation.
Given that added sugars are present in candy, cakes, soda, and many other foods and drinks that are attractive to children and teenagers, it is perhaps no surprise their sugar intake is so high.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2005-2008, boys in the U.S. aged 2-19 years consumed around 16.3 percent of their daily calories (around 362 calories) from added sugars, while added sugars accounted for around 15.5 percent of daily calories (around 282 calories) for girls of the same age.
Based on a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA), children and adolescents need to cut their sugar intake dramatically; it recommends that children aged 2-18 should have no more than 100 calories from added sugar daily - the equivalent to 6 teaspoons.
What is more, children under the age of 2 should not consume any added sugars at all, according to the new guidelines.
This, say the authors, is because children of this age do not require the calorie intake of older children and adults, so there is not enough room for the empty calories provided by food and drinks containing added sugars.
Additionally, they point out that taste preferences develop early in life, so limiting intake of added sugars before the age of 2 may reduce preference for unhealthy foods later on.
High added sugar intake linked to heart disease risk factors
The AHA say their new statement - recently published in the journal Circulation - is easier to follow than the previous one, which recommended different sugar intakes for children and adolescents based on their age and overall calorie intake.
"Our target recommendation is the same for all children between the ages of 2 and 18 to keep it simple for parents and public health advocates," says lead author Dr. Miriam Vos, professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA.
"For most children, eating no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day is a healthy and achievable target," she adds.
Dr. Vos and colleagues reached their new recommendations by conducted an in-depth analysis of all scientific research that has assessed how consumption of added sugars affects children's health.
The results showed that high intake of added sugars during childhood can lead to the development of heart disease risk factors, including obesity and high blood pressure.
"Children who eat foods loaded with added sugars tend to eat fewer healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products that are good for their heart health," notes Dr. Vos.
Furthermore, the risk of developing such health problems increases with the more added sugars a child consumes, and children who are already overweight who carry on consuming added sugars are at greater risk of insulin resistance, making them more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Sugar-sweetened drinks remain a leading source of added sugars
The authors note that one of the most common sources of added sugars among children is sugar-sweetened drinks, such as soda and energy drinks. This will perhaps come as no surprise to many, given that a single 12-ounce can of cola can contain more than 9 teaspoons of sugar.
"Children should not drink more than one 8-ounce sugar-sweetened drink a week yet they are currently drinking their age in sugary drink servings each and every week," notes Dr. Vos.
The authors say there is little research assessing how no-calorie sweeteners - such as aspartame, saccharine, and sucralose - affect children's health, so they are unable to make any recommendations regarding their intake.
Furthermore, they say it is unclear whether sugars present in 100 percent fruit juices are linked to the same health risks as added sugars.
Still, the AHA are confident that the evidence to date shows children should reduce their intake of added sugars to protect current and future health.
Dr. Vos and colleagues note that from July 2018, food manufacturers in the U.S. will be required to list added sugar content on their labels, which they say will make these new AHA guidelines easier to adhere to.
"Until then, the best way to avoid added sugars in your child's diet is to serve mostly foods that are high in nutrition, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meat, poultry and fish, and to limit foods with little nutritional value."
Dr. Miriam Vos