What is sugar?
All 'sugars' are carbohydrates and along with starch is our body's main source of energy. We rely on sugar for energy – be it for our brains, bodies or nervous system. In fact, it has been part of our diets for thousands of years. Sugar is found naturally in most foods like fruits, vegetables and milk as well as being an ingredient used in a wide range of foods and drinks.
All carbohydrates are made from small building blocks called simple sugars or monosaccharides.
The type of sugars most adults and children in the UK eat too much of are "free sugars". These are:
- Any sugars added to food or drinks. These include sugars in biscuits, chocolate, flavoured yoghurts, breakfast cereals and fizzy drinks. These sugars may be added at home, or by a chef or other food manufacturers.
- Sugars in honey, syrups (such as maple, agave and golden), nectars (such as blossom), and unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies. The sugars in these foods occur naturally but still count as free sugars.
Sugar found naturally in milk, fruit and vegetables doesn't count as free sugars. We don't need to cut down on these sugars, but remember that they are included in the "total sugar" figure found on food labels.
How much sugar is recommended?
The government recommends that free sugars – sugars added to food or drinks, and sugars found naturally in honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies and purées – shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day.
- Adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day, (roughly equivalent to seven sugar cubes).
- Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g of free sugars a day (six sugar cubes).
- Children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g of free sugars a day (five sugar cubes).
- There is no guideline limit for children under the age of 4, but it's recommended that they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it. Find out more about what to feed young children.
Why we should limit the amount of sugar in our diet
Eating too much sugar can contribute to people having too many calories, which can lead to weight gain. Being overweight increases your risk of health problems such as heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes.
2. Tooth decay
Sugar is one of the main causes of tooth decay.
To prevent tooth decay, reduce the amount of food and drinks you have that contain free sugars – such as sweets, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, sugary breakfast cereals, jams, honey, fruit smoothies and dried fruit – and limit them to mealtimes.
The sugars found naturally in fruit and vegetables are less likely to cause tooth decay, because they are contained within the structure. But when fruit and vegetables are juiced or blended into a smoothie, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth.
Also, it's better for your teeth to eat dried fruit as part of a meal, such as added to your breakfast cereal, tagines and stews, or as part of a healthy dessert – a baked apple with raisins, for example – and not as a between-meal snack.
Cutting down sugar
For a healthy, balanced diet, cut down on foods and drinks containing free sugars.
These tips can help you to cut down:
Reducing sugar in drinks
- Instead of sugary fizzy drinks or sugary squash, go for water, lower-fat milk, or sugar-free, diet or no-added-sugar drinks. While the amount of sugar in whole and lower-fat milk is the same, choosing lower-fat milk reduces your saturated fat intake.
- Even unsweetened fruit juices and smoothies are sugary, so limit the amount you have to no more than 150ml a day.
- If you prefer fizzy drinks, try diluting no-added-sugar squash with sparkling water.
- If you take sugar in hot drinks or add sugar to your breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether. Alternatively, switch to a sweetener.
Reducing sugar in food
- Rather than spreading high-sugar jam, marmalade, syrup, chocolate spread or honey on your toast, try a lower-fat spread, reduced-sugar jam or fruit spread, sliced banana or lower-fat cream cheese instead.
- Check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the reduced- or lower-sugar version.
- Try reducing the sugar you use in your recipes. It works for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream.
- Choose tins of fruit in juice rather than syrup.
- Choose unsweetened wholegrain breakfast cereals that aren't frosted, or coated with chocolate or honey.
- Choose unsweetened cereal and try adding some fruit for sweetness, which will contribute to your 5 A Day. Sliced bananas, dried fruit and berries are all good options.
And most importantly, always check your food labels! For more information on reading food labels and their meanings please visit: https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/sugars.aspx