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.
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.
We don't realise how much sugar we're consuming, especially when we have a sweetened drink. For instance, did you realise that:
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.
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 from fruit and dairy. Teen boys aged 16 to 18 eat the most sugars, both added and natural.
This all depends on how many kilojoules or calories you burn off. Around 10 per cent of your intake 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||10 g sugars||2.5 teaspoons|
|1 muesli slice||17 g sugars||4 teaspoons|
|2 cup of tea with sugar||8 g sugars||2 teaspoons|
|1 scoop ice-bream||10 g sugars||2.5 teaspoons|
|TOTAL||45 g sugars||11 teaspoons|
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.
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.
Look for No-added-sugar types at 8 to 11% (this means 8 to 11 grams per 100g in the Per 100g column). But compare brands - some regular juices have less sugar than No-added-sugar variants depending on their natural sweetness.
15% or less added sugar
25% or less sugars if they have dried fruit (like Sultana Bran, Just Right) as these contribute natural sugars as well as added. Compare brands and buy the lowest sugar percentage you see.
12% or less sugars (natural unflavoured yoghurt has around 6% sugars to start with).
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.
Click here to view our handy table of the pdf sugar content of everyday foods (140 KB) including chocolate, lollies, breakfast cereals, soft drinks, biscuits, ice creams, cakes, desserts and sauces.