From cola, chocolate and ketchup to beer, yoghurt and soup, find out where most of the added sugar in our diet lurks. “Added sugar” such as sucrose, hydrolysed starch and honey should not make up more than 10% of the total calories we get from food and drink each day.
This is around 70g for men (10 teaspoons) and 50g for women (eight teaspoons), but varies depending on your size, age and how active you are. But the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (PDF, 1.55Mb) reveals Britons are having far too much, especially children aged 11 to 18 years – 15% of their daily calories are from added sugar.
“Sugar is sugar,” says dietitian Catherine Collins. “Whether it’s white, brown, unrefined sugar, molasses or honey, don’t kid yourself: there is no such thing as a healthy sugar. “Refined sugars offer no nutritional value. Our bodies don’t need it and it is a source of completely unnecessary calories.”
Katharine Jenner, nutritionist and campaign director of campaign group Action on Sugar, says: “The sugar we add to our food accounts for a tiny fraction of the added sugar we eat. To really make a difference to our diets, we need to reduce the sugar we get from processed foods.
“The problem is checking for sugar on food labels can be confusing for shoppers as it comes in many different forms. These can be listed separately, but add up.” If you want to cut down on sugar, get used to reading food labels, comparing products and choosing lower sugar or sugar-free versions.
Examples of sugars on food labels:
- corn sugar
- high-fructose glucose syrup
- invert sugar
Below are the six main sources of added sugar in the British diet according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, with examples of some of the main sweet offenders.
Sugar, preserves and confectionery
Up to 27% of our daily intake of added sugar
Choc horror! Britons have a sweet tooth. A large chunk of the added sugar in our daily diet (up to 27%) comes from table sugar, jams, chocolate and sweets, with chocolate regularly voted Britain’s favourite sweet treat. Sugar intake is highest among children aged 11 to 18 years.
But there are lower sugar alternatives, says Collins. “Feel a chocolate craving coming on? Then have a banana instead,” she says. “The sweet taste and mouth-feel is similar to that of chocolate. Failing that, when it comes to chocolate, the smaller the portion, the better.”
Try dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or above, which usually contains less sugar than plain or milk chocolate.
- Chocolate spread (57.1g of total sugar per 100g)
- Plain chocolate (62.6g/100g)
- Fruit pastilles (59.3g/100g)
25% of our daily intake of added sugar
Perhaps the most surprising source, nearly a quarter (25%) of the added sugar in our diet comes from soft drinks, fruit juice and other non-alcoholic drinks.
The levels are even higher among children aged 11 to 18 years, who get 40% of their added sugar from drinks – mainly soft drinks, such as cola. “Most fizzy drinks are basically refined sugar with water and flavouring,” says Jenner. Fruit juice is an interesting one. Even 100% pure unsweetened fruit juice is high in the type of sugars we need to cut down on. This is because the juicing process releases the sugars contained in the fruit, meaning they can damage our teeth.
While eating whole fruit is better for your teeth, fruit juice still contains vitamins and minerals, so one glass (150ml) of unsweetened 100% fruit juice counts as one of your 5 A DAY. Fruit juice counts as a maximum of one portion a day, even if you drink more than one glass. If you want to drink fruit juice, it is best to have this at mealtimes only.
Collins says: “Not all fruit juices are created equal,” says Collins. “If it says ‘fruit juice drink’ on the label, then it’s not a 100% pure juice. A fruit juice drink contains juice, water and a variable amount of added sugar, so be sure to compare labels and avoid the high sugar juice drinks.
“It’s an easy win to drop the sugar from sugary drinks. Simply swap the full sugar versions for low calorie or calorie-free ones instead. Better for your teeth and your waistline.”
- Cola (10.9g/100g)
- Squash cordials (24.6g/100g)
- Sweetened fruit juice (9.8g/100g)
Biscuits, buns, cakes
20% of our daily intake of added sugar
Britain is a nation of “grazers”, preferring to fill up on something that’s quick and comforting but often high in sugar and fat, such as buns, pastries, biscuits and other cereal-based foods.
While cereal-based products, especially wholegrains, form part of a healthy balanced diet, we are advised to cut down on varieties high in sugar and fat, which can increase the risk of tooth decay and contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess.
“For breakfast, there’s no need to grab a pastry, muffin or biscuits,” says nutritionist Dr Michelle Storfer. “Pastries, muffins and biscuits are laden with sugars, not to mention fat.
Instead, opt for porridge oats, natural yoghurt (topped with berries, nuts or seeds) or wholegrain toast with some peanut butter, avocado or eggs. These are healthier options that will keep you feeling satisfied and full of energy until lunch.”
- Iced cakes (54g/100g)
- Chocolate-coated biscuits (45.8g/100g)
- Frosted corn flakes (37g/100g)
11% of our daily intake of added sugar
People are unaware of the sugar content in drinks and don’t include them when calculating their daily calorie intake. “But cutting down on how much you drink can have a big effect on your sugar intake and your general health too,” says Jenner.
Gram for gram, alcohol contains more calories (7kcal/g) than carbohydrates or protein (4kcal/g). A standard glass of wine (175ml, 12% ABV, 126kcal) can contain as many calories as a piece of chocolate.
Collins says: “We’re getting better at counting alcohol units, but most people don’t realise that a unit of alcohol equals 70kcals. Add to that value the sugars in your alcoholic drink or added as a mixer, and you can easily top 100kcal per drink.”
Tips on cutting down:
- Have a few alcohol-free days each week
- Try lower alcohol drinks
- Have a smaller bottle of beer instead of a can
- Use sugar-free mixers
- Swap every other drink for a water or sugar-free soft drink
6% of our daily intake of added sugar
Although dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt contain lactose (milk sugar), these foods also contain protein and calcium and form part of a healthy balanced diet. We don’t need to cut down on lactose, as this type of sugar is not as damaging to our teeth as added sugars.
However, some dairy products, such as flavoured milks, yoghurts and dairy-based desserts such as ice cream, contain added sugar, including table sugar, fructose, concentrated fruit juice and glucose-fructose syrup. “Watch out for the sugar content in lower fat yoghurts,” says Jenner. “When you remove the fat from a product, you remove flavour, so sugar is often added to improve the taste. The result is ‘low in fat’ can still be high in sugar and calories.”
- Fruit yoghurt (16.6g/100g)
- Fruit fromage frais (13.3g/100g)
- Choc ice (20.5g/100g)
5% of our daily intake of added sugar
Sugar is also found in surprisingly large amounts in many savoury foods, such as stir-in sauces, ketchup, salad cream, ready meals, marinades, chutneys and crisps. A 2007 study by Which? found some ready meals had more sugar content than vanilla ice cream.
“We don’t tend to think of savoury dishes being high in sugar, but you’ll find sugar added to a surprising number of processed foods in the UK,” says Jenner. “One way to take control of your sugar intake, but also your salt and fat intake, is to cook from scratch.” If you do buy processed foods, get used to checking food labels for sugar content.
- Tomato ketchup (27.5g/100g)
- Stir-in sweet and sour sauce (20.2g/100g)
- Salad cream (16.7g/100g)
Page last reviewed: 17/02/2014. By NHS Choices
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