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Everything You Need to Know about Sugar

Sugar often comes with negative connotations. Many people are advised to go completely sugar free or opt for ‘unrefined’ versions. Some common claims include it causing cancer, and it has even been claimed that sugar is as addictive as cocaine.

The world of nutrition can be a confusing place and so it is no wonder people are becoming increasingly worried about their consumption of sugar. Despite this, it’s fair to say many negative claims surrounding sugar are often untrue, and many have been oversimplified. Nutrition is complex, and there is rarely a simple answer to any one topic. “Bad”, “toxic”, “addictive”, are all examples of fear mongering language associated with sugar … however nutrition is not black and white. 

What is Sugar?

Sugar is the name for sweet tasting carbohydrates which are found both naturally or added to food. In its most simplistic form (1 unit of sugar), sugar is referred to as monosaccharides which includes glucose, fructose, and galactose. These molecules can also form together to make disaccharides (2 sugar units) which include lactose (milk), maltose (malt sugar), and sucrose (table sugar).

Most importantly, glucose, a form of sugar, is essential in fuelling the human brain. In order to function correctly, we need to consume around 120g/420kcal per day. Our bodies convert glucose into glycogen which is stored in the liver and muscle cells for daily use and in cells and tissues for long term use.

Quite often, manufacturers often replace the word ‘sugar’ on the list of ingredients on food and drink packaging, and instead use words such as fructose, lactose, sucrose, unsweetened fruit juices, carob, corn syrup, and many others in attempt to trick consumers to thinking there is little or no sugar in certain products.

Natural Sugars

Natural sugars are those that naturally occur in fruit, vegetables, and milk-based products. Foods containing natural sugars are essential for a healthy diet and we do not need to cut down on our consumption of them (unless diagnosed with a specific health condition). However, it may be useful to bear in mind that natural sugars are included in the ‘total sugars’ figure that is seen on food labels.  

Free Sugars

Free sugars are sugars which have been added to foods or drinks such as cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, flavoured yoghurts, and fizzy drinks. Free sugars are also found in honey, syrups, nectars, shop bought fruit juices, and smoothies. Although these sugars are naturally occurring, they are still classified as free sugars. As a population, we should aim to consume less of these types of sugar. If consumed in excess, they can have damaging effects on our health such as contributing to dental cavities and type 2 diabetes.

Unrefined VS Refined Sugar

In more recent years, expensive unrefined sugar options such as coconut sugar and maple syrup have become more popular due to them being marketed as a ‘healthier alternative’ to ordinary table sugar. Although unrefined sugars may contain extremely small amounts of potentially beneficial minerals and vitamins, you would have to consume excessive amounts (100g or more) to gain even a small health benefit from it. These are still classed as a free sugar. 

Health Implications

There are many health risks associated with excessive sugar consumption. One of the most common being tooth decay, which can occur due to the presence of acid in the mouth caused by dietary sugar leading to cavities and holes in the teeth. Although levels of tooth decay have declined in recent years, it continues to remain a big problem in the UK with 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 4 children affected.

There are various ways to reduce the risk of dental caries include:

  • Brushing teeth at least twice a day
  • Drinking more water, especially after consuming sugary products
  • Reducing the consumption of sticky, sugary foods

Various pieces of research have confirmed a link between sugary soft drinks and type 2 diabetes. Though sugar may not directly cause diabetes, it is likely due to high number of calories in soft drinks.  It has been found that soft drinks are the highest contributor of sugar in both adults and children’s diets. On average one can of soft drink contains around 40g of sugar, which alone exceeds the daily recommended allowance.

The Sugar Levy

To address some public health issues surrounding high sugar consumption, in 2018 the government implemented a sugar levy. This meant that manufactures were charged 24p per for drinks with 8g or more sugar per 100ml and 18p for drinks containing 5-8g of sugar. Whilst the sugar levy has encouraged some manufactures to reduce the amount of sugar in some of their recipes, the levy has some flaws. Milk based products such as sugary milkshakes and fruit juices are exempt from the levy due to them containing other nutrients such as calcium in the milk and various vitamins in smoothies.  It has also been argued that those on a lower income are negatively affected by the levy when they continue to buy soft drinks but end up suffering from the rise in prices.

Recommended Daily Intake

The government currently recommends that the daily  intake of free sugars should only equal approximately 5% of  daily energy intakes.  This equates to around:

  • Adults – 30g or 7 cubes of sugar a day
  • Children aged 7-10 – 24g or 6 sugar cubes a day
  • Children aged 4-6 – 19g or 5 sugar cubes a day

However, figures from the most recent National Diet & Nutrition Survey confirmed that male adults (aged 19-64) on average consume 64.3g of sugar and women consume 50g of sugar, both of which are well over the daily guidelines recommended by the NHS.

Should We Avoid Sugar Altogether?

Absolutely not. Firstly, when we restrict ourselves of certain foods, we end up craving them even more. This means that when we finally ‘give in’ and eat the foods we are trying to avoid/craving, we are likely to feel out of control around them and over consume.

Secondly, sugar makes food taste delicious. Of course, nutrition is important, but so is enjoying foods that you love! All food has a place in a healthy, balanced diet.

Just because a slice of cake contains sugar, it doesn’t take away all the other benefits you are getting from the other ingredients. For example, protein found in the eggs, fibre from the four, and calcium in the butter.

Takeaway Sugar Tips:

  • Where possible, opt for natural sugars over free sugars
  • Check labels for other words manufactures may use instead of sugar
  • Instead of focusing solely on sugar intake, find ways you can include more variety in your diet
  • Whilst it may be a good idea to be mindful about the amount of sugar we are consuming, we should also not restrict ourselves and know it is completely healthy and natural to enjoy a sweet treat



Contribution by Lily Foods ANutr