Finding a balanced diet is something we’ve all heard before. This generally means having a variety of whole foods to cover the full range of macro and micronutrients, including healthy fats, quality protein, whole food carbohydrates, fibre, water, vitamins and minerals. But sugar seems to get the lions share of the press both in the news and in magazines, which can make it difficult to know the real story.
Sugar Awareness Week is this week (20th-26th January) giving an opportunity to celebrate the success of food industry, government and NGOs' progress in reducing helping to reduce our sugar intake. Each year is themed, with 2020 focusing on ‘What’s in your drink?’. We thought going over the basics of sugar and looking into some ways to reduce our sugar intake would be helpful!
First things first, what is sugar? Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in many foods and are the primary source of energy in the body. In its simplest form, sugar is a single molecule, such as glucose, fructose and galactose. These molecules (called monosaccharides) can pair up in different combinations to make other forms of sugar such as sucrose, lactose and maltose (disaccharides). In fact, glucose is a product of carbohydrate digestion and is essential for the body to function normally.
Natural sugars & free sugars
Natural sugars are found in fruit as fructose and in dairy products, such as milk and cheese, as lactose. However, confusion often occurs with free or refined sugars. These come from sugar cane or sugar beets, which are processed to extract the sugar, processed and then added to food or drink, including biscuits, chocolate, flavoured yoghurts, cereal and fizzy drinks for example. Free sugars are not naturally present in fruit and vegetables e.g. frozen, fresh or dried, or in milk or milk products such as cream, cheese and plain yoghurt or natural sugars in nuts and seeds.
Please note that sugar in honey, syrups, unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies are all naturally occurring sugars, but still count as free sugars. Food manufacturers then add the chemically produced sugar, typically high-fructose corn syrup, to many packaged foods. However, many people in the UK have too many high-sugar foods and drinks in their diet. These pose a risk to their dental health and increase their chances of getting various health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
How much is too much?
What are the recommended daily limits? Our maximum daily total sugar intake is 90g, with 30g being the maximum daily free sugar intake. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend that no more than 5% of our daily energy intake comes from ‘free sugars’, which are defined as any form of sugar that has been added to food, or that is present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit concentrates.
Sugar content on packaging is referred to as total sugars, this includes both naturally occurring and free sugars. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the two so check the ingredients. If glucose, honey, sugar, syrups or fruit juice concentrate appears in the top three ingredients, then it will be high in free sugars and should be avoided (or accounted for else where within your daily intake).
When it comes to ranking beverages best for our health, sugary drinks fall at the bottom of the list because they provide so many calories and virtually no other nutrients. Sugary beverages do not make us feel as full as if the same calories were eaten from solid food, with research indicating that we do not compensate for the high caloric content of these beverages by eating less food.
The NHS provide these tips for cutting down on sugar:
Instead of sugary, fizzy drinks and juice drinks, go for water or unsweetened fruit juice – remember to dilute fruit juices for children to further reduce the sugar
If you take sugar in hot drinks or add it to cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether
Check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the low-sugar version
Choose tins of fruit in juice – rather than in syrup
Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals – but not those coated with sugar or honey
This blog post was written by Amanda Finch, who is a qualified Public Health Nutritionist and Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr). Alongside running from Root to Leaf, who has a special interest in helping people live healthier and happier lives. Amanda is passionate about maximising our health through how we live our lives; our food, physical activity, sleep, stress and anxiety management, as well as how nutrition information is communicated. You can find Amanda on social media at the following channels; Instagram - @fromroottoleaf, twitter - @fromroottoleaf1 and her website fromroottoleaf
Action on Sugar (2020). Sugar Awareness Week 2020. Action on Sugar. Available from http://www.actiononsugar.org/sugar-awareness-week/sugar-awareness-week-2020/ [Accessed 18 January 2020].
BDA (2017). Sugar: Food Fact Sheet. The Association of UK Dieticians. Available from https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/sugar.html [Accessed 18 January 2020].
Harvard T.H. Chan (2018). The Nutrition Source: Sugary Drinks. School of public health. Available from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/sugary-drinks/ [Accessed 19 January 2020].
NHS (2017). How does sugar in our diet affect our health? NHS. Available from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-does-sugar-in-our-diet-affect-our-health/ [Accessed 18 January 2020].
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