As a food educator, I see a lot of extreme reactions from kids. They might squeal with delight at the sour tang of a lemon, or groan in dismay when the cocoa powder they assumed would be sweet turns out to taste as bitter as black coffee. In one of my favorite moments with second graders, I cut an apple in half to reveal the hidden star formed by its seeds, and the awestruck students literally gave me a standing ovation. Especially when it comes to food, children tend to experience the world with a heightened intensity.

But there’s only one moment in our curriculum that I count on to bring a collective gasp. It’s when we measure out the sugar in a bottle of Coca-Cola.

The activity is part of a discussion we have about sugar: What is it? What can it do to your body? How much is too much – and how do we know what we’re consuming? In case you haven’t looked at a 20oz bottle of Coke lately, it contains 65 grams of sugar. (The World Health Organization warns us to limit our added sugar consumption to fewer than 50g per day – though Americans currently consume much more.)

As I guide the kids through a nutrition facts label, they learn to locate the amount of sugar in a serving of soda and then calculate how many grams are in the whole bottle. Then they figure out how many teaspoons of sugar that is. We count together as we scoop spoonful after spoonful into a clear bag, and when we reach 65 grams, I hold the heavy bag of sugar and the soda bottle side by side. That’s when I hear the gasp.

It’s an eye-opening activity for most kids, some of whom tell me they drink soda every day. “I had no idea!” is something I hear over and over. We often assume that kids don’t know what’s good for them: they demand sweets so much; they must think sugar is OK! But I’ve found that in our discussions about health, kids know more than we give them credit for. Even young children grasp that sugar can damage their teeth and that over-consumption can have serious health effects. They know sugar should be a treat and not a staple, but when they’re bombarded with commercials for sugary beverages, when many adults in their lives drink soda daily, and when sweet fizzy drinks are available in every bodega, deli, and vending machine, they don’t see it as a special occasion treat. They see it as an everyday part of our diet. Kids know “too much” sugar is bad, but they have no frame of reference for how much is “too much.”

Third graders mix up a fizzy fruit beverage -- no sugar needed -- after learning to read a nutrition facts label.

Third graders mix up a fizzy fruit beverage — no sugar needed — after learning to read a nutrition facts label.

Our sugar measuring activity gives context. It empowers kids to calculate how much they’re consuming, and shows what that really looks like. Instead of finger-wagging lectures, we’re arming them with nutritional literacy: a tool they can use when they choose what to eat and drink. I love hearing that gasp, because the amount of sugar in a soda really is shocking — fine for a birthday party or a special dinner out, but not as a daily thirst-quencher after school. Many kids simply don’t realize that until they see it firsthand.

Soon, we’ll have to modify our lesson and handouts to reflect the new rules for nutrition labels announced by the FDA this spring. Under the new rules, the amounts per serving and per container will be listed side by side, so there’s no need for multiplication when you want to know the total sugar in a jumbo sweetened tea. Calories and serving size will be prominent. Added sugars will be on the label for the first time in its own category, along with a percent of daily value (the added sugars in that Coke? 130% of our daily recommended intake). And sweetened “pseudonyms” like “evaporated cane juice” and “agave nectar” will be abolished in favor of the more straightforward “sugar.”

There has been some pushback, much of it from the Sugar Association (for reasons you might imagine). Others worry that the new serving sizes, updated to reflect modern larger portions, might encourage people to eat more. Still others think the changes don’t go far enough; they want bolder, front-of-package labeling and dietary warnings.

However the labels change, kids will still need context and a deeper understanding of balanced eating to make sense of them. I’m proudest when “I had no idea” is replaced by “I knew that!” As adults, we can affect kids’ health with so much more than vague dietary scolding. Through hands-on interactive learning, we can continue to engage, involve, and astonish children. Listen for the gasps.

Click here for a summertime version of the sugar measuring activity you can do with your kids at the beach, or click here for a Fizzy Fresh Fruit Drink recipe to make at home!