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

Sources of sugar in the Australian diet

We currently drink and eat our way through approximately 123 g 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.

How much sugar should I eat?

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 7,500 kilojoules (1,800 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 a sample intake below).

This translates to 11 level teaspoons of sugar a day - not much when you realise that one 60 g 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 12,600 kilojoules (3,000 Calories) a day could tuck into some 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. This translates to 80 grams of sugar - if it were all added.

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


Look for No-added-sugar types at 8 to 11% (this means 8 to 11 grams per 100 g in the Per 100 g 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.

Fruit yoghurt

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. 

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 370 mL can stacks on 40 grams of sugar. 

Downloads / Fact Sheets

Where's the sugar?

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. 

Catherine Saxelby About the author

About the Author


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Catherine Saxelby has the answers! She is an accredited nutritionist, blogger and award-winning author. Her award-winning book My Nutritionary will help you cut through the jargon. Do you know your MCTs from your LCTs? How about sterols from stanols? What’s the difference between glucose and dextrose? Or probiotics and prebiotics? What additive is number 330? How safe is acesulfame K? If you find yourself confused by food labels, grab your copy of Catherine Saxelby’s comprehensive guide My Nutritionary NOW!