SUGAR: THE FACTS

Most adults and children in the UK eat too much sugar. Cut down by eating fewer sugary foods, such as sweets, cakes and biscuits, and drinking fewer sugary soft drinks. Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don't need to cut down on these types of sugars.

Sugars are also added to a wide range of foods, such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and some fizzy drinks and juice drinks. These are the sugary foods that we should cut down on. 

Why do we need to cut down on sugar?

We Britons really do eat too much sugar: 700g of the sweet stuff a week – that’s an average of 140 teaspoons per person.

Our love affair with sugar can mean that many of us are getting too many calories, which is one of the causes behind our ever-expanding waistlines.

Most of us could do with eating less sugar, particularly added sugar. But many habits, especially ones we like, are so hard to kick.

Dietitian Alison Hornby says:

“Identify the sources of sugar in your diet, and decide what to cut out completely and what to cut down on. You don’t need to cut down on sugars found in fruit or dairy products because these foods contain lots of nutrients that are good for us. It’s the food high in added sugar, such as fizzy drinks, which contain lots of calories but few other nutrients, that we should be trying to consume less of.”

Added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 10% of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. That’s about 70g for men and 50g for women. Find out how much sugar is too much.

 

Evidence from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that most adults and children eat more sugar than is recommended as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Many foods that contain added sugars (and often have few other nutrients) are also high in energy, which is measured in either kilojoules (kJ) or calories (kcal). Eating these foods often can contribute to you becoming overweight.

Being overweight can increase your risk of health conditions such as:

To eat a healthy, balanced diet, we should eat these types of foods only occasionally, and get the majority of our calories from other kinds of foods such as starchy foods and fruits and vegetables. Learn more in A balanced diet.

Sugary foods and drinks can also cause tooth decay, especially if you eat them between meals. The longer the sugary food is in contact with the teeth, the more damage it can cause.

The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit. But when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth, especially if fruit juice is drunk frequently. Even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so try to drink no more than one glass (about 150ml) of fruit juice each day.

Fruit juice is still a healthy choice, and counts as one of your recommended daily five portions of fruit and vegetables. But it is best to drink fruit juice at mealtimes in order to minimise damage to your teeth.

Quick tips to cut down on sugar

For a healthy, balanced diet, cut down on foods and drinks containing added sugars.

These tips can help you cut down:

  • Instead of sugary fizzy drinks and juice drinks, go for water or unsweetened fruit juice (remember to dilute these for children to further reduce the sugar).
  • If you like fizzy drinks, try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water.
  • Swap cakes or biscuits for a currant bun, scone or some malt loaf with low-fat spread.
  • If you take sugar in hot drinks or add sugar to your breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether.
  • Rather than spreading jam, marmalade, syrup, treacle or honey on your toast, try a low-fat spread, sliced banana or low-fat cream cheese instead.
  • Check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the low-sugar version.
  • Try halving the sugar you use in your recipes – it works for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream.
  • Choose tins of fruit in juice rather than syrup.
  • Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals, but not those coated with sugar or honey.

Find out more ways of cutting out sugar from your diet.

How can we tell how much sugar food has in it?

Nutrition labels and sugars

Nutrition labels often tell you how much sugar a food contains. You can compare labels and choose foods that are lower in sugar. 

Look for the "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)" figure in the nutrition label.

  • HIGH – over 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
  • LOW – 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

If the amount of sugars per 100g is between these figures, then that is a medium level of sugars.

The sugars figure in the nutrition label is the total amount of sugars in the food. It includes sugars from fruit and milk, as well as the sugars that have been added.

A food containing lots of fruit or milk will be a healthier choice than one that contains lots of added sugars, even if the two products contain the same total amount of sugars. You can tell if the food contains lots of added sugars by checking the ingredients list (see below).

Sometimes you will see a figure for "Carbohydrates", and not for "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)".

The "Carbohydrates" figure will also include starchy carbohydrates, so you can't use it to work out the sugar content. In this case, check the ingredients list to see if the food is high in added sugars.

Colour coding on the front of packaging

Some packaging uses a colour-coded system which makes it easy to choose foods that are lower in sugar, salt and fat. 

This includes labels that use red, amber and green colour-coding and advice on reference intakes (RI) of some nutrients, which can include sugar.

Labels that include colour-coding allow you to see at a glance if the food is high, medium or low in sugars.

  • red = high
  • amber = medium
  • green = low

Look for more "greens" and "ambers" and fewer "reds" in your shopping basket.

Some labels on the front of packaging will display the amount of sugar in the food as a proportion of the RI (Recommeded Intake).

RIs are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients required for a healthy diet. For more, see Food labels.

Ingredients list

You can get an idea of whether a food is high in added sugars by looking at the ingredients list. Added sugars must be included in the ingredients list, which always starts with the biggest ingredient. This means that if you see sugar near the top of the list, you know the food is likely to be high in added sugars.

For more on other food label terms, such as "no added sugar", see Food labelling terms.

“Get used to reading food labels and comparing products to choose the healthier option,” says Alison. “Watch out for other words used to describe added sugar in the ingredients list.”

different ways added sugar can be listed on ingredients labels:

  • sucrose
  • glucose
  • fructose
  • maltose
  • molasses
  • hydrolysed starch
  • invert sugar
  • corn syrup
  • honey

Simple tips to help you gradually cut down on the amount of added sugar in your diet

Cutting down on sugar doesn’t have to mean going cold turkey.

There are lots of small changes you can make, which over the course of a day can add up and make quite a difference.

Breakfast

Main meals

SNACKS

DRINKS

DESSERT