Sugar - are you sweet enough?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Saturday, 30 May 2009.
Tagged: carbohydrates, healthy eating, sugar, weight loss

Sugar - are you sweet enough?

On its own, a little sugar is not bad for you - but you do need to consider how much and how often you eat it. In moderation, sugar is unlikely to cause harm and make low fat, high fibre foods taste better. A spread of jam on multigrain toast or a handful of sweets is hardly going to destroy the nutritional value of a whole diet. But ...

But sugar is a refined food, supplying no vitamins, minerals or fibre. The only nourishment that sugar has to offer is kilojoules (calories). Because it's easy to overconsume, too much sugar can lead to overweight which then sets the scene for health problems such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. And it does play a role in tooth decay.

Once condemned as ‘pure, white and deadly', sugar is receiving more moderate press today. While it does play a role in causing tooth decay, it does not cause problems such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and hypoglycaemia - rather, it is an indirect factor in that the intake of too many kilojoules can lead to being overweight.

Sugar is hidden

Only about 25 per cent of the total sugar we ingest is sugar that we consciously add to foods, for example in tea, coffee or in home baking. The remaining 75 per cent comes from the everyday packaged foods and drinks we consume such as soft drink, juices, cereals, biscuits, ice creams, cakes and sweets. There's a great table of sugar in these foods in my Fact Sheet.

This is a dramatic reversal of the situation early in the century. Up until the 1950s, most sugar was used at home to prepare jams, home-made biscuits, cakes, bottled fruit, sweets and puddings as well as for table use to sweeten tea, coffee and cereals.

Today, with the growth of convenient ready-made foods and the decline in home cooking, sugar usage at home has dropped dramatically. Despite this, our total intake has changed relatively little.

How much sugar?

We don't realise how much sugar we're consuming, especially when we have a sweetened drink. For instance, did you realise that:

  • A 375ml can of soft drink has 10 teaspoons of sugar?
  • A tall 600ml Coke Buddy has 16 teaspoons?
  • A 250ml glass of orange juice has 5 teaspoons (even the unsweetened types)?
  • A 300ml carton of flavoured milk has 6 teaspoons?
  • A 250ml can of energy drink has 7 teaspoons?
  • A 600ml bottle of sports drink has 5 teaspoons? 

Sugar comes in many forms

When we hear of sugar, we normally think of white table sugar or sucrose. However, sugar comes in a number of forms - fructose (fruit sugar), glucose, lactose (milk sugar) and maltose. All supply 17 kilojoules (4 Calories) per gram. High-fructose corn syrup and fruit juice concentrate are other forms of sugar.

Sources of sugar in the Australian diet

We currently drink and eat our way through approximately 123g of total sugars a day (about 31 teaspoons). This includes added sugar plus natural sugars form fruit and dairy. Teen boys aged 16 to 18 eat the most sugars, both added and natural.

How much sugar should I eat?

This all depends on how many kilojoules or calories you burn off. Around 10 to 12 per cent your kilojoules can come from added sugar - a modest amount that does not cause health problems.

So a sedentary woman who eats 7500 kilojoules (1800 calories) a day would be able to consume 45 grams of sugar (from both the sugar she adds to food and what's already in sweetened foods - see figures below).

This translates to 11 level teaspoons of sugar a day - not much when you realise that one 60g chocolate bar has 33 grams of sugar. Most of us have to halve what we eat now.

1 bowl cereal 10g                            2
1 muesli slice 17g                            4
2 cups of tea with sugar 8g             2
1 scoop ice cream 10g                     2.5
Total 45g                                       10 tsp

The more active you are, the more sugar you can eat. A 16 year old active boy who burns off 12600 kilojoules (3000 calories) a day could tuck into some 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. 

Sugar OK in moderation

In moderation, sugar is unlikely to cause harm and adds to the enjoyment of food. A teaspoon of sugar in a cup of tea or a wedge of cake would hardly destroy the nutritional value of an otherwise healthy diet. And a little sweetness makes high-fibre low-fat foods more palatable - think how nice a spread of honey or jam is on wholemeal bread or some brown sugar over porridge.

Dietary guidelines suggest that Australians and New Zealanders eat only moderate amounts of sugar and foods containing added sugar. You don't need to avoid sugar completely for good health, but it's sensible to cut back on foods that are low in nutrition - like soft drinks, pastries or sweets.

Other foods containing sugar, such as flavoured yoghurt or breakfast cereal, have a much better nutrient profile and give you important nutrients along with the sugar.

Sugar appears on the ingredient list of many foods but in very small quantities where it functions as a flavour balancer (pasta sauce) or yeast food (bread). These sources of sugar are negligible and do not pose any health concern.

Sugars on labels - what to aim for

Juices

Range 8 to 14% sugar

Look for No added sugar types at 8-9% (this is 8 grams per 100g in the Per 100g column) but compare brands - some regular juices have less sugar than No added sugar types depending on their natural sweetness.

Cereals

20% or less added sugar
  OR
25% with dried fruit (Sultana Bran, Just Right) as these have natural sugars as well as added. Compare brands and buy the lowest sugar percentage you see.

Fruit yoghurt

5% or less added sugar
  OR
15% less sugars (natural unflavoured yoghurt has around 8% sugars to start with)

Tip:

On a label, "sugars" means the total of what's natural (say from fruit or milk) PLUS what's added. You can't tell how much is ADDED sugar. Look at the ingredient list and see if some form of sugar is near the top of the list. Sugar can appear as glucose, dextrose, fructose, sucrose, maltose or fruit concentrate eg grape juice concentrate. 

4 ways to cut back on sugar

  1. Watch what you drink from soft drink, energy drinks, sports drinks, cordial and juice. Opt for water to quench your thirst instead.
  2. Cut back on sweet ‘junk food' like lollies, rollups, chocolate, cakes and fancy ice creams. Save these treats for special occasions and make them small.
  3. Between meals, snack on fresh fruit or nuts or yoghurt or cheese and crackers instead of sweet biscuits, chocolate or muffins. Sweeten your cereal with banana, chopped fresh fruit or a handful of sultanas.
  4. Don't stress about the sugar from fruit yoghurt, flavoured milk, canned fruit or brown sugar on porridge or jam on toast - they're the smallest contributors and make healthy food taste good. Jam is high in sugar (65%) but you only spread 2 teaspoons on your toast, so you consume a small 6 grams of sugar. Soft drink has 10% sugar but you drink a lot of it. A 370ml can stacks on 40 grams of sugar. 

Downloads / Fact Sheets

Where's the sugar?

Click here to view our handy table of the sugar content of everyday foods including chocolate, lollies, breakfast cereals, soft drinks, biscuits, ice creams, cakes, desserts and sauces.

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.