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Controlling sugar intake

There have been lots of news stories recently about the amount of sugar in food and the health effects of eating too much sugar. This article provides some facts about sugar and some handy hints and tips for controlling your sugar intake.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates should make up about 50% of what we eat but most of our intake should be from starchy carbohydrates, especially the high fibre (wholegrain) varieties. Starchy foods include bread, potatoes, cassava, yams, pasta, noodles and rice. Starchy carbohydrates are an important energy source, while fibre is important for digestive health and can help you to feel fuller for longer. Sugars also provide energy, but too much sugar increases the risk of tooth decay, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

What is the guidance for sugar intake?

New government guidance recommends that free sugars make up less than 5% of energy intake. That’s no more than 30g (7 cubes*) of free sugar per day for adults and children over 11. Children from 7-10 should have no more than 24g (6 cubes) and children from 4-6 no more than 19g (5 cubes).

*1 cube = 4 grams sugar

Free sugars are those that have been added by the food manufacturer, cook or consumer to a food and include sugars naturally found in fruit juice, honey and syrups. It doesn’t include sugars naturally found in milk and milk products and whole fruit and veg.

Most adults and children in the UK eat more than the recommended amount so it’s important to try and cut down on foods containing free sugars, such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, jams, puddings, sugary fizzy drinks and juice drinks. Remember that free sugars are sometimes added to savoury foods as well, including ready meals, condiments and stir in sauces. These can be harder to spot because the foods don’t taste sweet.

You might be surprised how much sugar is in foods and drinks you buy so here’s a guide to the sugar content* of some common foods:

Product Amount of sugar Product Amount of sugar
330ml can of cola 35g (8¾ cubes) 30g chocolate flavoured toasted rice cereal 11g (2¾ cubes)
472ml bottle strawberry milkshake 45g (11¼ cubes) 30g sugar/honey coated multigrain cereal 6g (1½ cubes)
200ml carton fruit juice drink 20g (5 cubes) 1 tablespoon tomato ketchup 3.5g (¾ cube)
4 finger chocolate wafer 24g (6 cubes) 125g pot low fat fruit yoghurt 16.5g (4 cubes)
40g milk chocolate 28g (7 cubes) 125g bolognese sauce 7.5g (2 cubes)
2 milk chocolate digestives 10g (2½ cubes) 1 medium slice white bread 1.5g (½ cube)
40g sugar coated chewy sweets 24g (6 cubes) 1 tomato based ready meal 8.5g (2 cubes)

*The sugar content of different brands will vary. Use food labels to check the amount in the products you buy.

Tips to reduce added sugar intake
1. Dilute fruit juice (half juice, half water) and squashes (1 part squash:10 parts water) well
2. Cut down on fizzy and sugary drinks e.g. sweetened squashes and juice
3. Swap sugary drinks for water – add a slice of lemon/lime to add flavour or try hot water
4. Swap sugar/honey/chocolate coated cereals for porridge oats and whole grain cereals
5. Swap biscuits, cakes and chocolate for healthier snacks e.g. fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, toast, unsalted nuts and seeds, whole grain crackers, plain scone, malt loaf, currant teacake
6. Swap cream and chocolate based desserts for fruit based desserts, sugar-free jelly, natural yoghurt or fresh/tinned fruit in juice
7. Instead of jam, syrup, honey or chocolate spread on toast, try low fat cream cheese, hummus, avocado or sliced banana
8. Reduce quantities of sugar in recipes

Food labels and sugars

Food labels usually tell you how much sugar a food contains. Look for the “Carbohydrates (of which sugars)” figure in the nutrition table:

22.5g or more per 100g = high in sugar

Less than 5g per 100g = low in sugar

The sugars figure is the total amount of sugar, which includes sugars from fruit and milk, as well as free sugars. You can tell if the food contains lots of free sugars by checking the ingredients list. Words used to describe free sugars include sugar, cane sugar, honey, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fruit concentrate, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, glucose, nectars and crystalline sucrose.

Sweeteners are found in lots of food products (e.g. drinks, desserts, ready meals, cakes and chewing gum). Sweeteners can also be added to hot drinks in place of sugar. Some of the most common sweeteners are acesulfame K, aspartame, saccharin, sorbitol, sucralose, steviol glycosides and xylitol. If a product has sweeteners in it you’ll find them in the ingredients list.

Using sweeteners can help you to reduce the amount of added sugar you eat, and can also help to prevent tooth decay and control blood sugar levels. All sweeteners have to pass safety checks before being approved for use so they’re safe to eat, but they do still encourage a sweet tooth! Also foods labelled ‘diet’, ‘sugar free’ or ‘low sugar’ may still be high in fat so remember to check the food labels.

Healthy teeth
Brushing your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and having regular check-ups at the dentist can help to keep your teeth healthy, although diet has a role to play too. Most people think that eating lots of sugar causes tooth decay, but it’s actually how often you have sugar that causes most of the problems. When you eat sugar, acid is produced which attacks your teeth. It takes an hour for your mouth to cancel out this acid. You can limit the number of attacks by only having sugary foods and drinks at mealtimes. Having sugar-free chewing gum and water after meals and snacks can also help. As well as causing decay, sugary fizzy drinks, fruit juices,sports drinks and wine can be acidic, which can cause dental erosion. This is when the acid gradually wears away tooth enamel and can lead to sensitivity.

Remember: eating lots of sugar is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease so you should still reduce the amount you eat, as well as limiting the number of times a day you choose sugary foods.