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A healthy eating guide to sugar

Sugar is one of the body’s main energy sources, so we need to eat some sugar as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. But too much sugar can lead to health problems, so it’s important to be aware of the sugar content of everything you eat. By doing this, you can make sure you’re not eating more than you should for good health.

What’s the problem with too much sugar?

Although sugar provides the body with less energy than fat, it still contributes to the ‘energy density’ of foods and drinks. This is the amount of energy that a food releases once it is digested and it is measured in kilojoules (kJ). A gram of sugar releases 17 kJ of energy, while 1 gram of fat releases 37 kJ.

Sugar and weight

So if you take in more energy in your food than you ‘burn up’ (for example if you have an inactive lifestyle), the excess energy is converted to fat and stored in the body. This can lead to weight gain and problems managing a healthy weight.

If you consume lots of food or drinks high in sugar, the energy can quickly add up. Sugary foods are often high in fat too so this is another way sugar in your diet can contribute to weight gain.

Sugar and nutrition

Some sugar-containing foods have little or no nutritional value as they provide you with kilojoules but little else. For example, cordials and soft drinks are high in sugar but they don’t contain other nutrients. On the other hand, fruit juices may be high in sugar but they can also be nutritious if they contain vitamins and fruit pulp. You can drink small amounts of these fruit juices as part of a healthy diet.

Examples of sugar-containing foods with little or no nutritional value include:

  • chocolate (50g = 7 teaspoons of sugar)
  • boiled sweets (1 sweet = 1 teaspoon of sugar)
  • soft drinks (375mL = 10 teaspoons of sugar)
  • sports drinks (375mL = 7 teaspoons of sugar).

Sugar and oral health

Bacteria in dental plaque use sugars that stick to the surface of your teeth to produce acids that eat at your tooth enamel. This contributes to tooth decay.

Eating too much sugar can also distort your sense of taste. Eating a lot of sweet, sugary foods trains your taste buds to expect a big hit of sweet flavour – which may lead you to consume even more sugar-filled foods!

How much sugar is too much?

Sugar can be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. While there’s currently no consensus as to how much you can eat, the World Health Organization along with a number of other countries recommended that no more than 10 percent of your total daily energy intake should come from added sugars (this is not the same as your overall carbohydrate intake).

For most adults, this works out to be no more than 50g or 12 teaspoons of sugar per day (1 teaspoon holds about 4g of sugar), from all sources of food and drink. However, Australians currently consume about 30 teaspoons of sugar a day on average — more than double the recommended amount!

Where’s the sugar in my food?

Sugar occurs naturally in fruit (fructose), vegetables and milk (lactose). You may also add sugar to your food at the table, for example in your morning cereal. But what you might not realise is that sugar is also added to many processed or packaged foods like biscuits, ice cream and lollies. It’s even added to processed savoury foods too, including bread, sauces and salad dressings. So, even if you don’t add sugar to your food, you may still be consuming ‘hidden’ sugar in processed foods.

Understand food labels

Paying attention to, and understanding food labels may help you work out how much sugar you are eating every day, and whether you need to switch to alternatives or cut back on some products.

Sugars added to food include:

  • table sugar (sucrose) in all its forms (e.g. raw sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar)
  • concentrated sources of sugar like fruit juices, molasses, corn or rice syrup, or honey
  • sugars that ends in ‘ose’ (e.g. glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose).

Look out for all these sources of sugar when you read a food label.

The ingredients in processed or packaged foods are usually listed on the label, ordered according to how much of each ingredient is present in the product. The ingredient present in the largest amount is listed first. So if sugar is near the top of the ingredients list, the product is probably high in added sugar.

The free FoodSwitch app can also help make food labels easier to understand.

All you have to do is scan the barcode of a packaged product with your smartphone camera, and you’ll get immediate, traffic-light style nutritional information to let you know if the product is low (green), medium (amber) or high (red) in sugar, as well as saturated fat and salt. The app also lists any healthier options available for the food you’ve scanned.

Alternatives to sugar

There are low-kilojoule sweeteners available that can be substituted for sugar.

  • Artificial (or non-nutritive) sweeteners are essentially kilojoule free.
  • Nutritive sweeteners are carbohydrate-based so they are not kilojoule free, but they release fewer kilojoules than sugar.

Sweeteners can be used instead of sugar in diet products and can be added to both food and drink. Some brands can also be used for cooking and baking. Sweeteners available in Australia include:

  • Non-nutritive sweeteners: saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, sucralose, acesulphame K, alitame, neotame
  • Nutritive sweeteners: sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, polydextrose, maltodextrin, fructose (fruit sugar)

Tips for eating less sugar

  • Read food labels or use FoodSwitch to check the sugar content of packaged products – aim to buy products containing less than 15g of sugar per 100g (or 7.5g of sugar per 100mL for drinks). If the food contains fruit, up to 25g of sugar per 100g is acceptable.
  • Look for ‘no added sugar’ alternatives – this means that no sugar has been added to the product during processing. It does not necessarily mean that there is no sugar in the product as the food may naturally contain some sugar.
  • Try to use less sugar in hot drinks – reduce the amount of sugar you add to your tea or coffee.
  • Don’t add to your breakfast cereal, oats or porridge – sweeten it using fresh or dried fruit instead.
  • Try brown sugar – its stronger flavour means you can use less of it than you would use of white sugar. Alternatively, use a sweetener instead.
  • Reduce the amount of sugar you add to recipes when baking – you may be able to reduce the amount by one-third to a half before you notice any difference in taste, or use vanilla, almond, orange or lemon extracts instead for the hint of sweetness. Or replace sugar altogether with unsweetened apple sauce. Use the same amount of sauce as sugar but reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by a quarter of a cup for each cup of apple sauce used.
  • Cut sugar out of recipes completely – use spices such as ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg to boost flavour.
  • Choose healthier snacks – go for fresh fruit or a small handful of unsalted nuts rather than a chocolate bar or biscuit.
  • Limit high-sugar foods and drinks to small amounts as an occasional treat. These include lollies, chocolates, soft drinks, energy and sports drinks, fruit drinks, cordials as well as cakes, biscuits and ice creams.

Sugar and diabetes

If you have diabetes (type 1 or type 2), it doesn’t mean that you have to completely avoid foods containing sugar. But eating a healthy diet is an important part of managing diabetes whether or not you are also taking diabetes medicines.

Try to avoid sugar-containing foods that have little or no nutritional value, and limit foods with added sugar. You could use the tips above to help you monitor the amount of sugar in your food, and take steps to reduce your sugar intake if necessary. An accredited practising dietitian can provide advice.

More information on smarter eating for people with diabetes.

Further information

Eat for health
www.eatforhealth.gov.au

Dietitians Association of Australia
www.daa.asn.au

Sources

Diabetes Australia. Diabetes and food – what should I eat? [online] [Last updated Aug 2011, accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.diabetesaustralia.com.au

Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). WHO guideline – sugar intake for adults and children. [online] 2014 [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.daa.asn.au

European Food Information Council. Addressing common questions about sugar. [online] [Last updated May 2014, accessed Jun 2014]. Available from: www.eufic.org

Healthdirect Australia. Cutting down on sugars. [online] [Last updated Feb 2013, accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.healthdirect.gov.au

National Diabetes Services Scheme (NDSS). Alternative sweeteners. [online] [Last updated Aug 2008, accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/NDSS

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Australian dietary guidelines. [online]2013 [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.eatforhealth.gov.au

NHMRC. Macronutrient balance. [online] 2006 [online] [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.nrv.gov.au

Government of South Australia. SA Health. Eat less sugar. [online] [Last updated Mar 2014, accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.sahealth.sa.gov.au

SA Health. Factsheet: Reading food labels. [online] [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.health.sa.gov.au

State Government of Victoria. Better Health Channel. Sugar. [online] [Last updated Oct 2011, accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au

University of Sydney. About glycemic index: measuring the GI [online]. [Last updated Feb 2013, accessed Jun 2014] Available from: www.glycemicindex.com

Last updated: 18 June 2014

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

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