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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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 Word Health Organization (WHO), along with health authorities in a number of countries, recommend that no more than 10 percent of your total energy intake should come from ‘free sugars’.
Free sugars refers to sugar that has been added to food and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. It also includes sugars which are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. It does not include sugar in fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and sugar (lactose) naturally occurring in milk.
For most adults this equates to be about 50g of sugar (or 12 teaspoons) per day. It can be very easy to reach 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day from all that you eat and drink. For example, 1 can of soft drink (375ml) contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. Australians currently consume about 30 teaspoons of added sugar a day on average – more than double the recommended amount!
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.
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:
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.
There are low-kilojoule sweeteners available that can be substituted for 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:
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.
Eat for health
Dietitians Association of Australia
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 2014Top of page
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