We know that too much sugar is bad for us. But how much is too much? With so much misinformation out there, our nutrition experts sort it out for you.
Most of us think of sugar as the white stuff we add to our coffee or baking. But sugar is found in essential healthy foods as well. With so much ‘noise’ out there about sugar, it can be confusing. This guide is based on science, not amateur blog posts, which we’ve compiled to help you to be smarter about sugar in 2017.
Not all sugars are created equal
Sugar is a carbohydrate. So carbohydrate-rich foods, like fruit, milk and even some vegetables (corn, potatoes and even peas), all contain natural sugars.
Fruit, vegies and whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. The sugars in these foods are not the ones that we need to be worried about. The distinguishing difference is that these sugars are enclosed by a plant cell wall.
So they tend to be digested more slowly, since the cell wall must be broken down first. Thus, these sugars take longer to enter the blood stream, and are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes and slumps that make us seek out a high-kilojoule snack.
While whole natural foods contain sugar, they also provide us with valuable vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. Also, these foods do not promote tooth decay like other sugars do.
It’s the added sugar, in very concentrated forms, that is the problem (think white sugar, honey, syrups and even fruit juice). These are called ‘free’ sugars and they have no cell walls to slow the digestion of them, so they freely gush into our blood stream. These sugars also lack nutrients, which is why they’re known as ‘empty’ kilojoules.
Some people believe that ‘natural’ sugars like rice malt syrup, coconut sugar and agave nectar are better, but our bodies treat them the same as white sugar. So these, too, are classified as ‘free’ sugars that should be limited, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Q. Which of these foods contain sugar?
A. All of them! Read on to find out how to be sugar savvy.
How much is too much?
On average, Aussies are now consuming 60g of added (free) sugar every day. That’s roughly 14 teaspoons.
The health ramifications are obvious: sugar causes tooth decay. And the foods where high concentrations of sugar are found, such as chocolate, biscuits, soft drinks and cakes, are also high in kilojoules, leading to weight gain.
Alarmingly, over half of the added sugar in our diet comes from sweet drinks. Further, both sugary food and drinks are high in kilojoules, but have very little nutritional value or satiety (which means they’re easy to overeat). And this is why sugar is a major culprit in the obesity problem.
The WHO dietary guidelines recommend that we limit added sugar to six teaspoons for adults and three teaspoons for children per day. Given that a standard 600ml bottle of soft drink has around 16 teaspoons of sugar, this recommendation may be a big ask for many Aussies!
Sugar, sugar everywhere
Most people have no idea how much sugar they are eating every day, because most of it is hidden in processed and packaged foods.
In an ideal world, you would be able to look at a food label and spot the specific amount of added sugar. Unfortunately, many foods contain a mixture of added and natural sugars — for example, a fruit muffin. And the current labelling laws only require a figure for total sugars be provided, so there’s no way to tell from the label how much added sugar there is inside.
Reading the ingredients list is the best way to see how much added sugar there is, because ingredients have to be listed in order of quantity. This means that if sugar appears in the first three ingredients, it’s likely that the food is high in added sugar.
However, beware the cunning tactics that some manufacturers use. They get around putting sugar at the top of the ingredients list by using smaller quantities of different kinds of added sugars with more obscure names: fruit juice concentrate, rice malt syrup and maltodextrose, to name just a few. Manufacturers can then put these sugars towards the end of the ingredients list. To help you recognise the many names that sugar hides behind, we’ve come up with a list (see Spot the sugar in your food, below).
And pictured here are some examples of just how common added sugar is in our food supply and how easily it hides.
The ingredients list for a muesli bar also belies the healthy marketing claims on the pack; sugar appears five times under names such as raw sugar, invert sugar and maple syrup.
One popular breakfast cereal has seven different types of added sugar in its ingredients!
Be savvy about sugar claims
100% natural sugar
This is a confusing claim since all sugars (unless they’re artificial sweeteners) are made from plant extracts, so are ‘natural’. For instance, white sugar comes from sugar cane, but this doesn’t mean it’s healthy. So, it’s a marketing tool rather than a source of useful information.
No added sugar
This usually means no refined/white sugar has been added. It does not mean there is no sugar naturally occurring in the product (as with fruit juice), or that other forms of sugar, such as rice malt syrup or honey haven’t been added.
100% sugar free
The term is often used for foods that have added artificial sweeteners, such as sugar-free gum. It could also mean food is sweetened with dried fruit, rice malt syrup or honey, so check the ingredients.
50% less sugar
This simply means that it has half the sugar than a standard product. Since this claim is usually used for products that are high in sugar (eg. cordial, jelly and flavoured milk), halving it does not necessarily mean it’s low in sugar.
No added cane sugar
This tells you there is no added sugar (white sugar) in the food. But it does not necessarily mean the product has no sugar. And remember, free-from-sugar doesn’t mean free-from-kilojoules.
Spot the sugar in your food
Sugar is often hiding behind several different names. Here are a few to look out for:
Fruit juice concentrate
Rice malt syrup
Sugar causes diabetes
If you have type 1 or 2 diabetes, you need to monitor the sugar and carbohydrates you eat in order to manage your blood sugar levels. However, if you don’t have diabetes, sugar intake alone won’t cause you to develop it. The main risk factors for type 2 diabetes are being overweight, inactivity and having a diet high in kilojoules.
It is the sugar in alcohol that is making me fat
It is actually the alcohol in drinks that puts on the weight, as alcohol is very high in kilojoules (at 29 kilojoules per gram compared to 17 kilojoules per gram for sugar).
Eating too much fruit is bad
Fruit contains natural sugars, but it also contains fibre, which acts as a brake on digestion, slowing down the delivery of sugar to our blood stream. The amount of sugar in a piece of fresh fruit is small compared with its filling power — think how full you’d feel after eating four oranges compared to drinking a glass of juice (made from about four oranges).
Brown sugar is better for you than white sugar
Brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses added back in. We would have to eat a massive amount of brown sugar to benefit from the tiny amounts of minerals in the molasses.
Sugar only adds sweetness
Sugar doesn’t just add taste. It’s a natural preservative used in jams, jellies, chutneys and relishes.
Sugar is a key ingredient in baking, tenderising the gluten in cakes and biscuits to create a soft, melt-in-the-mouth crumb. It caramelises to create crispness and a golden colour. It also feeds the yeast used in bread-making and alcohol production.
Sugar causes hyperactivity
The science doesn’t support this. Lollies, cakes and sugary drinks are normally eaten at celebrations when lots of other things get kids excited. In one study, parents who were told their children had consumed sugar were more likely to classify their child’s behaviour as ‘hyper’, when in fact none of the children had eaten sugar.
Five easy ways to cut back on sugar
Use fruit for sweetness: Add fresh or frozen fruit to cereal, desserts and baked goods. Leave the skin on where possible to increase fibre content.
Minimise sugary drinks and lollies: These provide no nutrients. If you add sugar to tea and coffee, cut back slowly so you don’t notice it.
Break the habit of daily cake: Replace it with nutritious sweet foods such as fruit.
Choose unsweetened varieties: Opt for plain yoghurt and add fruit for sweetness. Drink plain milk, and look for breakfast cereals with the lowest amount of added sugar — if any.
Skip bottled sauces and dressings: Drizzle balsamic vinegar and olive oil over salads, and use lemon, garlic and herbs to flavour meals. (See recipes for easy dressings on p76.)
Do I need to quit sugar?
While we should be mindful of our sugar intake, there is no need to completely avoid sugar for good. As we know, the more deprived you feel, the more likely you will cave in and overeat the food that you’re missing out on.
The key here is moderation. Eating a slice of cake on a special occasion is not going to ruin an otherwise healthy diet.
This is why we at Healthy Food Guide occasionally use small amounts of sugar in our recipes, such as cakes or biscuits. The goal is to ensure that sweet treats are enjoyed in modest portions on special occasions, not every day. But it’s sensible to cut back on sugar and focus on making minimally processed whole foods the basis of your everyday diet.