Most of us in Scotland have too much sugar in our diets and we should be trying to cut down. The type of sugar that we need to cut down on is called free sugar. This doesn’t include sugars that naturally occur in milk or in whole fruits and vegetables. Free sugars are any sugars added to food or drinks or naturally found in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.

A lot of free sugars in our diet comes from discretionary food and drinks which are high in calories, sugars, fat and/or salt but low in nutritional value. We should all try to cut down on these as they are not required as part of healthy diet – they should be eaten less often and in small amounts.

Discretionary foods and drinks high in free sugars include:

  • Confectionery (sweets and chocolate)
  • Sweet biscuits
  • Sugary drinks
  • Cakes, pastries and puddings

We should aim to eat a healthy balanced diet which means getting most of our calories from starchy foods (particularly wholegrain, high fibre versions), fruits and vegetables.

Sugar, Obesity and Type II Diabetes

Eating foods that are high in free sugars means that it is easy to eat more calories than you need. This can lead to weight gain and obesity as well as increasing your risk of other health conditions. Drinking sugary drinks should also be limited as this has been linked to an increased risk of developing type II diabetes.

Sugar and tooth decay

Too much free sugar causes tooth decay particularly if eaten between meals. This includes fruit juice and honey. Sugars found naturally in whole fruits are less likely to cause tooth decay. However, when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released and can damage teeth. Also, dried fruits have a tendency to stick to our teeth, so it is a good idea to swap them with fresh fruits whenever you can. If you do have dried fruit, having it as part of a meal and not between meals as a snack can help to reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Fruit Juice and Smoothies

Fruit juice and smoothies can count towards your 5-a-day but should be limited to one small glass (150ml) a day. Drinking fruit juice should be kept to mealtimes to help reduce the risk of tooth decay. Watch out for ‘juice drinks’ which can be high in free sugars and might not count towards your five a day.

How much sugar should we have?

It is recommended that free sugars should not exceed 5% of the total energy (calories) we get from food and drinks every day. This means that the maximum amount of free sugars for an adult is 30g which is about seven sugar cubes. Children are advised to have less: Children aged 4 to 6 years old should have no more than 19g a day (5 sugar cubes), and children aged 7 to 10 years old, should consume no more than 24g (6 sugar cubes).

Tips for cutting down on sugar

Look at the label! – check nutrition labelling to help you pick the foods and drinks with less added sugar, or go for the lower-sugar or sugar free version.

Try replacing sugary drinks for water, unflavored low fat milk, sugar-free alternatives including diet and no added sugar drinks. If you like fizzy drinks you could try diluting sugar-free squash or fruit juice with sparkling water. But don’t forget that even unsweetened fresh fruit juice contains free sugars, so try not to drink more than 150ml a day.

Try to cut back on the amount of sugar/honey/syrups/jam that you add to food and drinks e.g. coffee, tea, cereals, bread, pancakes. You can start by reducing the amount you add little by little until you cut it out altogether!

You could also try to swap sugary or honey coated breakfast cereals for plain cereals with less sugar, such as muesli -with no added sugar or salt – such as plain porridge oats, whole wheat or shredded biscuit cereals.

If you have a sweet tooth, instead of sugar, you could add either fresh (banana, strawberries, blueberries) or dried fruits (apricots, raisins, coconut) to cereals and plain yogurts. When cooking recipes try to reduce the sugar you use by one third for a start and then by half - this should work for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream. Choose tinned fruit in juice rather than in syrup.

Checking food labels

For pre-packed items, that have colour coded labels on the front of the pack, you can tell at a glance if the food item is high, medium or low in sugars, fat, saturated fat and salt. For a healthier choice, try to pick products with more greens and ambers, and fewer reds.

  • High sugars in food is more than 22.5g sugars per 100g
  • Low sugars in food is less than 5g sugars per 100g
  • High sugars in drinks is more than 11.25g sugars per 100g
  • Low sugars in drinks is less than 2.5g sugars per 100g

On the back of food packs you will also find information on the amount of sugar in the product. Look for 'Carbohydrates (of which sugars)' figure in the nutrition information panel. The sugars figure in the nutrition label is the total amount of sugars in the food. 'Total sugars’ describe the total amount of sugars from all sources (free sugars plus those naturally present in milk and those present in the structure of fruits and vegetables).

Any sugars that have been added to the product must be included in the ingredients list where all the ingredients are listed in descending order. Watch out for other words that are used to describe added sugars, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup and honey. If you see one of these near the top of the list, the product is likely to be high in added sugars.

For more on checking the label, see our labelling pages.