The Truth About: Sugar

1st August 2019 / Health

The Truth About: Sugar

Emily Shannon

What is sugar? 

Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in a number of different sources, for example lactose in milk and dairy products and fructose in fruit. There are two different types of sugar, naturally occurring sugar and ‘free’ sugar. 

New recommendations from The World Health Organisation advise that no more than 5% of our daily calorie intake should consist of ‘free’ sugars, which is approximately 7 cubes of sugar or 30g. It is estimated that on average adults are consuming 15 teaspoons of sugar every day. 


Free Sugars: Free sugar is any sugar that is added to food or drinks that would not naturally occur. Example of foods and drinks containing free sugars include biscuits, chocolate, flavoured yogurt, cereal and fizzy drinks. 

What is the problem with sugar?

Free sugars are often described as being ‘empty calories’. This means that we are consuming calories, but the calories that we are consuming offer no nutritional value. The World Health Organisation have suggested that there is a correlation between a reduction in free sugars and a decrease in body weight. Not only this but the analysis of a number of studies has suggested a positive association between the consumption of free sugars and dental caries. 

It is estimated that a large proportion of our daily dietary intake is made up of free sugars which often comes from jams, sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks like coca cola.  It can be difficult to beat the post-lunch energy crash, with the foods that we so often reach for, packed with free sugars that we might not even realise. 

Hidden Sugar 

Sugar is hidden in a wide range of food that you might not expect, foods like bread, beans and tomato sauce all contain sugar. An example of this is a tin of tomato soup, a medium carton can contain up to 6 cubes of free sugars. Similarly, a ready made pasta sauce is likely to set you back up to 30g of sugar.

It is estimated that nearly a quarter of the added sugar that we consume comes directly from sugary drinks. This is why it is so important to read the labels on the food that we by to look for the versions lowest in sugar, or even just make our own at home! 

How to identify sugar on a food label

Sugar can be disguised with a different name on food labels, shockingly there are over 60 possible alternative names, so it is important to be aware of this when you are buying food products. Alternative words used to describe sugar include:


  • Cane sugar 
  • Honey 
  • Brown Sugar 
  • High-Fructose Corn Syrup 
  • Fructose 
  • Sucrose 
  • Glucose 
  • Dextrose
  • Maltose 
  • Molasses
  • Treacle 

Sugar on food labels - how much is too much? 

  • Red = high (more than 22.5g of sugar per 100g or more than 27g per portion) 
  • Amber = medium (more the 5g but less than or equal to 22.5g per portion)
  • Green = low (less than or equal to 5g of sugar per 100g)

Some products have a colour coded traffic light labelling system so it is easy to tell whether it is high in sugar, these foods should be consumed infrequently as part of a healthy balanced diet, as a treat for example. It is also important to check the labels all foods, and not just the ones that you expect to have a high sugar content, there are many foods that contain ‘hidden sugars’. 

Sugar alternatives 

There are an increasing number of sugar alternatives creeping into the market. These products claim to be ‘natural’ therefore seemingly to be a healthier alternative to normal white sugar. These products include date syrup, honey and coconut sugar. However, it is important to be aware that studies have shown that these products cause a similar, if not greater increase in our blood glucose level than ordinary sugar. 

Should we be cutting sugar out altogether? 

Sugar that is naturally present in fruits and dairy products is more than just sugar. For example, fruit that is naturally high in sugar also contains a large amount of both vitamins, minerals and fibre that are vital for our bodies. Let’s take raspberries, they taste very sweet but a single portion also gives you a hefty amount of fibre. Another example is milk, rich is a sugar called lactose, also delivers essential minerals including calcium. 

As a result we just need to become more wise about our sugar intake and where sugars might be hidden, we shouldn’t eliminate nutrient rich foods from our diet, as they are essential for our health. 

What’s our daily sugar allowance?

The reference intake for total sugars is 90g a day, this includes 30g of free sugars. It is important to consider that the total amount of sugar will be displayed on the product label, however, this figure will not be broken down into total sugar and free sugars. 

Top Tips for reducing sugar

  • Check the product label to see how much sugar the product contains
  • Use the traffic light system as a guidance
  • Try to gradually reduce sugar intake slowly, for example gradually reduce the amount added to tea and coffee
  • Avoid drinking too many high sugar, fizzy drinks and stick to water where possible
  • Snack on veggies and protein rich foods for example veg sticks and hummus or oatcakes and cheese 

Further Reading 


The British Dietetic Association