Sugar

Most of us need to cut down on the sugar we consume, it's low in nutritional value and shouldn't be part of a healthy diet.

Free sugar

The type of sugar we need to eat less of is called free sugar. Free sugar is sugar added to food or drink and found naturally in honey, syrups and fruit juices. We don’t need to worry about sugar which is naturally present in whole fruits, vegetables or milk.

Things like sweets, chocolate, biscuits, cakes, sweet pastries, puddings and sugary drinks are high in calories, fat, sugar and/or salt. They’re low in nutritional value too, so they shouldn’t be part of a healthy diet.

How much sugar?

Free sugar should not make up more than 5% of the total calories we eat every day. The recommended maximum amount of sugar for an adult is 30g – that’s around 7 sugar cubes.

Children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g (around 5 sugar cubes). Children aged from 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g (6 sugar cubes) of sugar.

Sugar and health

Eating and drinking too much free sugar makes it easy to take in more calories than we need. That can lead to weight gain and obesity as well as increasing the risk of health conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Sugar and tooth decay

Too much sugar causes tooth decay, particularly when eaten between meals. Sugars found naturally in whole fruits are less likely to cause tooth decay but when fruit is juiced or blended the sugars are released which can then damage teeth. Fruit juice and smoothies do count towards your five a day, but limit them to one small glass (150ml) a day. Drinking fruit juice with a meal rather than on its own can help reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Sugar causes more damage the longer it is in contact with teeth. For example, dried fruit can stick to your teeth, so eat it as part of a meal rather than as a separate snack to reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Good to know

We should aim to swap sugary drinks for water, lower fat milk or sugar free drinks including tea and coffee

Understand the label

Pre-packaged items have colour-coded labels on the front that tell you if the item is high, medium or low in sugars, fat, saturated fat and salt. Pick products with more greens and ambers and fewer reds on the label.

For more detailed information check the nutritional information panel at the back of the packet. You’ll see the words ‘Carbohydrates (of which sugars)’ – this is the total amount of sugar in the product. This includes free sugar and the sugar naturally present in things like milk, fruit and vegetables.

The ingredient list names everything in the product and it’s always arranged so that the largest ingredient appears first. If you spot ‘sugar’ near the top of the list, that means it’s one of the main ingredients in the product.

But watch out - sugar isn’t always called sugar. Things like cane sugar, honey, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, fructose, sucrose, glucose, and nectars are all free sugars too.

What do the labels mean?

  • Low sugar in food means there’s less than 5g sugars per 100g
  • High sugar in food means there’s more than 22.5g sugars per 100g
  • Low sugar in drinks means there’s less than 2.5g sugars per 100g
  • High sugar in drinks means there’s more than 11.25g sugars per 100g

Good to know

It's not as difficult as you think to eat less sugar

  • Cut down on biscuits, cakes, pastries, sweets and chocolate, replacing them with fresh fruit and veg
  • Replace sugary drinks with water, unflavored low-fat milk and sugar-free soft drinks
  • Check labels and pick food and drink with less sugar, choosing lower-sugar or sugar-free alternatives where possible
  • If you like fizzy drinks, try diluting sugar-free squash or fruit juice with sparkling water
  • Remember that unsweetened fresh fruit juice and smoothies are high in sugar, so avoid drinking more than one small glass (150ml) a day
  • Cut back on honey, syrup, sugar and jam – try reducing the amount you add little by little
  • Swap sugary breakfast cereals for plain cereal like porridge oats, wholewheat/shredded biscuit cereals
  • Add fresh fruit to cereal and plain yogurt if you have a sweet tooth

More on this topic

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​Eatwell Guide Booklet

The Eatwell Guide shows the proportions in which different types of foods are needed to have a well-balanced and healthy diet.

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Vitamins & minerals

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that our body needs to work properly.

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Salt

Two-thirds of us eat too much salt. Around 75% of salt we eat comes from everyday foods like bread, breakfast cereal and ready meals.

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Fats

Too much fat, especially saturated fat, can increase the risk of heart disease.

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