The Truth About Sugar 2017

The Truth About Sugar 2017

There has been a lot of media attention in the UK about sugar consumption, the sale of ‘sugar-free’ cookbooks has gone through the roof and every other person I speak to is following a ‘clean eating’ way of life so where has all the hype come from and what do you really need to know?

How much sugar should I be eating?

As a nation we are eating too much ‘free sugar’. Free sugars are defined as any sugars that we add to food e.g. sucrose and glucose, and also those sugars which are naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. So before you reach for your ‘sugar free’ cookbook, ask yourself are the recipes really sugar free or are you just substituting standard table sugar (e.g. sucrose) for an alternative sugar? Free sugars do not include sugars which are found in intact fruit and vegetables or dairy products. There’s a great infographic created by the people at The Rooted Project (@rooted_project) which can be found here.

It is currently recommended that free sugars should account for no more than 5% of our daily energy intake – that’s the equivalent of about 30g (7 ½ tsps) of sugar per day. This might sound like a lot but, on average, we are currently eating more than double this amount every day! Even the most health-conscious of us may be eating more than we realise as sugar can be found hiding in so many of our everyday foods such as bread, cereals, pasta sauces and soups.

Free sugars should account for no more than 5% of our daily energy intake – that’s the equivalent of about 30g (7 ½ tsps) of sugar per day

The difficulty comes when you try to work out how much free sugar you are actually consuming each day. Unfortunately EU legislation only requires total sugars to be listed on food labels so this will include all the free sugars but it will also include those sugars from intact fruit and vegetables or dairy products. That being said, the food label will still give you an indication of whether the product is high in sugar and will help you to decide whether you should make a ‘sugar swap’ and opt for a healthier alternative. As a guide, high sugar foods will contains more than 22.5g of sugar per 100g, and low sugar foods less than 5g per 100g. For drinks this value is given per 100ml.

Another way to suss out whether a product is high in sugar is to take a peek at the ingredients list. If sugar appears near the top of the list you can guarantee that the product is high in sugar. Be warned, sugar may be listed under a number of different names so watch out for anything ending in ‘ose’ (e.g. glucose, fructose, maltose) as well ingredients such as syrups, molasses, agave and honey.

Free Sugars
Free sugars include those which are naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices

Is sugar really as bad as we think?

Mainstream media would have you believe that sugar is the devil and that we should avoid it at all costs, however the truth of the matter is that a little bit of sugar here and there isn’t actually that bad for you.

Sugar is a carbohydrate which provides us with energy (calories). The problem lies with how much sugar we eat and where we get it from. For example, if we get most of our sugar from fruits, vegetables and dairy products then we will be consuming other nutrients alongside the sugar and this will form part of a healthy, balanced diet. If however, we get most of our sugar from foods such as fizzy drinks, sweets and biscuits we are consuming what are known as ‘empty calories’, i.e. the food is providing the body with excess calories but little else in the way of nutrition. So rather than looking purely at the sugar content of a food we should be looking at the food as a whole.

When sugar is eaten in excess it can lead to an energy intake which is greater than the amount of energy we burn each day. This energy imbalance has been linked to weight gain as well as heart disease and diabetes. A high sugar intake has also been associated with a greater risk of tooth decay, so to preserve that dashing smile perhaps we all ought to think twice about whether that extra slice of birthday cake in the office is really necessary and take some steps to reduce the amount of free sugars that we are consuming each day.

How can I reduce the amount of sugar in my diet?

If you are currently a healthy weight then you should look to replace free sugars with starches, sugars found in intact fruit and lactose which is naturally present in milk and milk products. However, for those of us who are overweight, free sugars should be reduced as part of a decrease in our total energy intake and therefore we do not need to replace it with other foods.

The main sources of sugar in our diets tend to be sugar-sweetened drinks (including carbonated drinks, juice drinks, energy drinks, squashes and cordials), table sugar, sweets, fruit juice and cereal-based products such as biscuits, cakes, and sweetened breakfast cereals. Why not write down everything that you eat over the next 3 days and try to identify how often these foods appear in your diet?

Other tips on reducing your sugar intake

  1. Cut out that teaspoon of sugar from your cup of tea
    Sugar contains 4kcal per gram, so a teaspoon of sugar provides us with about 20 calories. This may not sound a lot but if you have 5 cups of tea a day with two sugars that’s an extra 200 calories a day. This adds up to a staggering 1400 calories a week!
  2. Watch out for low-fat foods
    Low-fat or reduced fat foods often contain free sugars which have been added to improve the taste, texture and palatability of the food.
  3. Opt for a serving of fresh fruit in place of fruit juice
    Whole fruits contain some naturally occurring sugars but they also contain fibre, vitamins and minerals. Whilst pure fruit juices are unsweetened they do not maintain the fibre content found in whole fruit and therefore they provide some free sugars. For this reason fruit juice should be limited to no more than a small glass (150ml) per day. Once you have reached your fruit juice quota switch to water and opt for whole fruits and vegetables.
  4. Cook fresh
    Many processed foods contain free sugars, even savoury foods such as soups and bread can contain free sugars. Cooking your meals from scratch means that you know exactly what has gone into your food. Herbs and spices can be used to season your meals without the need for extra sugar and salt.

In addition to the tips above, why not check out these sugar swaps for more ideas on reducing your sugar intake?


Further reading 

Sugar swaps


Useful links


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