Sugar is a natural ingredient that has been part of our diet for thousands of years. Sugars are carbohydrates that provide energy for the body. The body breaks down all sugars and starches to glucose. The most common sugar in the body is glucose which your brain, major organs and muscles need to function properly. The brain requires around 130g of glucose each day to cover basic energy needs.
Some sugars are found naturally in foods (e.g. fruit, vegetables and milk) while others are used during processing and cooking.
The body does not distinguish between the different types of sugar and breaks them down in exactly the same way. For example, the sucrose in an apple is broken down in exactly the same way as the sucrose in your sugar bowl.
The most common kinds of sugars are:
- Sucrose is often called table sugar. Made up from glucose and fructose, it is extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet and also naturally present in most fruits
- Fructose and glucose are found in fruits, vegetables and honey
- Lactose is commonly called milk sugar because it is found in milk and dairy products
- Maltose is also known as malt sugar and is found in malted drinks and beer.
Sugars in your kitchen cupboard may come in many forms such as:
- fruit juice
- hydrolysed starch
- invert sugar
- corn syrup
Sugar and your health
Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, which in turn increases your risk of health conditions such as heart disease and type 2diabetes. We should aim to get the majority of our calories from other kinds of foods, such as starchy foods and fruits and vegetables.
Sugary foods and drinks can also cause tooth decay, especially if consumed between meals; the longer the sugary food is in contact with teeth, the more damage it can cause. Sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay, but when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars released can damage teeth, especially if fruit juice is drunk frequently. Your combined total of drinks from fruit juice, vegetable juice and ‘smoothies’ should not be more than 150ml a day (a small glass).
Most of us eat too much of what is referred to as “free sugars”; sugars that are added to food or drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.
Key recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and Public Health, UK recommend that free sugars should not exceed 5% of our total dietary energy intake. This applies to all age groups from two years upwards-
- no more than 19g a day of free sugars for children aged four to six
- no more than 24g a day for seven to 10-year-olds
- no more than 30g a day for children from age 11 and adults
Sugar swap tips
- Many breakfast cereals are high in sugar. Try switching to lower-sugar cereals or those with no added sugar. If you usually add sugar to your porridge, try adding a few chopped dried apricots or a sliced or mashed banana instead. If you add sugar to your cereal, try adding less. If you prefer toast for breakfast, try wholemeal or granary bread, which is higher in fibre than white bread, and use a smaller amount of your usual spreads like jam, marmalade, honey or chocolate. You could try a lower-fat spread, sliced banana or lower-fat cream cheese instead.
- Many ready-made foods such as soups and sauces contain large amounts of sugar. For example, a third of an average-sized jar of pasta sauce (approx. 150g) can contain more than 13g of sugar, the equivalent of three teaspoons of sugar.
- When eating out watch out for dishes that are typically high in sugar (e.g. sweet and sour dishes, sweet chilli dishes and some curry sauces; salads with dressings like salad cream).
- Condiments and sauces such as ketchup can have as much as 23g of sugar in 100g – roughly half a teaspoon per serving.
- Opt for water, lower-fat milks, or sugar-free, diet and no added sugar drinks instead of sugary fizzy drinks or sugary squash. If you enjoy fizzy drinks, try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water.
- If you take sugar in hot drinks, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether.
- Healthier snack options include those without added sugar, such as fresh fruit, tinned fruit in juice rather than syrup, unsalted nuts, unsalted rice cakes, oatcakes, or homemade plain popcorn.
- Try halving the sugar you use in your recipes when possible. And check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the lower-sugar version.
- If you feel you need to have dessert every day, try having dessert after your evening meal, or only on weekends, or when dining out.
Remember to check food labels
Read the nutritional information to see how much sugar the food contains. Remember that sugar has many different names. The nearer the beginning of the ingredient list the sugar is, the more sugar the product contains. Look for the “Carbohydrates (of which sugars)” figure in the nutrition label to see how much sugar the product contains for every 100g:
- more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g is high
- 5g of total sugars or less per 100g is low
For further information on nutrition labels click here