Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. There are different types of sugar including ‘table sugar’ (sucrose), fructose (found in fruit) and lactose (found in milk).
Sugars can be divided into ‘free’ and ‘intrinsic’ sugars:
Intrinsic sugars are those found naturally in dairy foods like milk or yogurt or in fresh, cooked, or dried fruit and vegetables. We do not need to cut down on these kinds of sugars. These foods form an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Free sugars include all added sugars in foods and drinks and the sugars present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, smoothies, and fruit juice concentrates. Free sugars are all sugars added to foods and drinks in any form whether added by you in homemade dishes or by food manufacturers. Free sugars are present in foods such as cakes, biscuits, sweets, sweet spreads and sauces, as well as sugars-sweetened soft drinks. Such foods can be high in calories and are not needed in the diet and, if included, should be consumed less often and in small amounts. Free sugars also include sugars that are naturally present in all syrups (e.g. agave syrup), unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies, purees and pastes where the structure has been broken down.
Consuming too much free sugars is linked with tooth decay and with consuming more calories than we need, which can lead to weight gain. Most people are consuming more free sugars than is recommended. It is a good idea for our health to try to reduce our intake of free sugars as part of a varied, balanced diet. It has been well established that higher amounts and frequency of sugar consumption are associated with increased risk of dental decay and research suggests that having more sugar in your diet tends to mean you will consume more calories overall. Some evidence from trials in children and adolescents shows that sugars-sweetened beverages are linked to weight gain and in addition some observational evidence suggests consuming high amounts of sugars-sweetened drinks may increase risk of type 2 diabetes.
We are recommended to limit the amount of free sugars we consume to no more than 5% of our daily calorie intake – this is about 30g or 7 sugar cubes for people aged 11 years and over. The main sources of free sugars in our diet are sweet foods like biscuits, cakes, chocolate and sweets, sugar and preserves and sugary drinks, so it is a good idea to limit the amount of these foods that your family eats.
It can be tricky to work out how much free sugar is in the products you buy: nutrition labels must provide information about total sugars (which is the sum of both the free sugars and sugars that do not count as free sugars within the product) per 100g. The ingredients list is a good place to look as sugars added to a product must be included in it. Free sugars may appear in the ingredients list as ‘sugar’ but other words and terms to look for include honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses/treacle, nectars, agave syrup, coconut sugar, dextrose, fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose, (high-fructose) corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, isoglucose and crystalline sucrose. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, so if a type of sugar appears near the beginning of the ingredients list, the product is likely to have more free sugars than one in which added sugars are at the end.
The main sources of free sugars in the UK are sugars-sweetened beverages (sugary fizzy drinks, energy drinks and cordials) and fruit juice, cakes, biscuits, desserts, sweet spreads and confectionery. Reducing our intake of these foods may help us reduce our free sugars intake.
In some cases, sugars may be added to savoury foods like sauces, soups, condiments and ready meals for taste, such as in a tomato-based sauce to counter the acidity of the tomatoes. Sugar also features as an ingredient in some homemade sauce recipes for the same reason. Although savoury foods do not appear to be making a significant contribution to our free sugars intake, foods such as ready meals and cooking and table sauces are included in the government’s calorie reduction programme tasking the food industry to reduce calories in many savoury food categories.
To reduce free sugars in your family’s diet, try to follow healthy dietary patterns as this can help to reduce your free sugars intake. Such patterns typically include fibre-rich, starchy carbohydrates (like wholegrains and potatoes with skins), with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and some protein-containing foods, such as beans, pulses, fish, eggs and lean meat, and lower fat, lower sugar dairy products. At the same time, many of us need to reduce our consumption of foods that contain lots of free sugars, including sugar itself, confectionery, cakes, pastries and biscuits. We can also limit our intake of sugars sweetened beverages by replacing some with water and lower-fat milks. If you would like a sweet taste, opt for no added sugar fruit squash and juices or ‘no added sugars’ drinks. And don’t forget alcoholic drinks which, on average, currently contribute around 10% of adults’ free sugar intakes.