Sugar is everywhere – both metaphorically and literally. You can barely read the news without stumbling over an article on the dangers of the sweet stuff, or buy a ‘healthy’ product in the supermarket without discovering that it’s under the list of ingredients in fine print.
Studies over the years have confirmed that excess sugar intake contributes to national rates of obesity and type II diabetes, and thanks to its effect on inflammation and other metabolic pathways, it may potentially have an impact on the management of a huge range of other chronic diseases.
Science on sugar and its negative effects on the body
In 1957, Professor John Yudkin famously catapulted sugar into the spotlight by proposing that excess sugar and the inability to stop sugar cravings in the diet might be hazardous to public health. Since then, biochemists, doctors, nutrition researchers, journalists, celebrities – pretty much every one around the world – have started to focus on the dangers of high sugar intake, without relenting on the subject, and bringing it into the limelight.
Today, the World Health Organisation recommends that daily intake of "free sugar” should be less than 10% of total energy intake, and that we should aim for a maximum of around 25g per day or not more than 6 teaspoons of free sugars each day. (1)
Recommended daily sugar intake UK: Adults and children
In 2015, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advised the government to halve the recommended intake of “free sugars” to help address the growing rates of obesity and diabetes in the UK. Their report, Carbohydrates and Health, was in response to a request by the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency to examine recent evidence on associations between carbohydrate, starch, sugar, and fibre consumption and a range of health outcomes. (2)
In this report, the Nutritionists recommended limiting the daily recommended intake of free sugars to no more than 5% of daily energy intake (in line with the WHO later recommendations for improved health outcomes). This translates to:
• 19g (3-5 teaspoons) for children aged 4 – 6 years
• 24g (4-6 teaspoons) for children aged between 7 – 10 years
• 30 g (5-7 teaspoons) for 11+ children/adults
However, many people are still confused about what sugars ‘count’ towards this. Although most people have got the message that “too much sugar is bad for you” – many still don’t understand the difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, or how different types are metabolised, or even how to tell how much sugar is actually in your food from supermarket packaging.
Difference between natural sugar vs added sugar
Simply put, sugar found in fruits, vegetables, some grains and dairy is referred to as “naturally occurring sugar”.
On the other hand, “added sugar” is often what is added to packaged meals (even though they can be labelled as a healthy product) for many different reasons, like to enhance flavour and improve the texture of food.
There is no actual chemical difference between naturally occurring and added sugars – they have to be metabolised using the same enzymes and processes. The difference lies in the amount and form in which we consume the sugars and the types of sugars themselves that are thought to makes a big difference to how quickly your body absorbs them, their metabolic effects, and how full you are (affecting how much of these foods you eat).
Food labels: Making sense of sugar
The sugar amount labelled on a product refers to the total amount regardless of source.
For example, a Sainsbury’s Greek Yoghurt with no added ingredients has a total of 5.2g of sugar per 100g. This is from the naturally occurring sugar lactose in the yoghurt.
On the other hand, other brands of fruit flavoured yoghurt can have something like 15.3g per 100g, with ingredients including sugar, meaning that around 10g is likely to be “added sugar”.
It’s pretty much impossible to tell from a packaging label how much of the sugar in a product is “free” or “naturally occurring”, which is partly why these have been called “hidden” sugars.
When you read recommendations about limiting your “free sugar” intake to under 25g a day – approximately 6 teaspoons – this refers to sugars added to food or drinks like soft drinks, biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, cereal bars, ready-made sauces, and sweetened yoghurts, and also those found naturally like in fruit juice, honey, syrups (rice, date, maple, agave), or other “natural” sugars like coconut or palm sugar.
So if you made a “healthy” cake with honey instead of refined white sugar – this is not “sugar-free.”
How naturally-occurring sugar functions differently from added sugar
Sugars that are naturally present in milk and milk products, and in the cellular structure of fruits, vegetables, and grains are found accompanied by fibre – or protein in the case of dairy – which slows down absorption and alters the way that they are metabolised in the body.
Sugars that don’t count as free sugars:
• lactose in milk and dairy produce
• sugar naturally present in fruit (including canned, frozen, dried, stewed)
• sugar naturally present in vegetables
• sugar naturally present in grains and various cereals
If you are watching your sugar intake or trying to wean off of the sweet stuff, we hope that this overview can help. Be mindful of the products you’re buying labelled “healthy” options. For more information on how you can limit your sugar cravings and find a plan that works for you, speak to a nutrition professional.