On its own, a little sugar is not damaging to your health – but you need to think about how much and how often you are eating it. In small amounts, sugar is unlikely to cause harm and can make some low fat, high fibre foods taste better e.g. a thin spread of jam on wholegrain bread or a spoonful of honey on your porridge or even a handful of sweets is hardly going to make you unwell or shift the balance in your whole diet.
But sugar has no nutritional value. It is empty calories with no vitamins, minerals or fibre and is really easy to over consume, which is why sugar can lead to weight gain and therefore increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Also, it is the only reason why you would get substantial tooth decay. Worryingly, 31 of children aged 2 to 15, 15 of women and 65 of men are classed as either overweight or obese, and almost 3.5 million people in the UK have been diagnosed with diabetes (90 of which is type 2, caused by diet choices), while tooth decay is a leading cause of hospital admissions for children and 31 of adults have tooth decay.
How much sugar should you eat?
It is recommended that we consume no more than 5 of our daily energy in the form of ‘free sugars’ which includes all sugars (including those in the form of honey and syrups) apart from sugar found in whole fruit and vegetables and milk-based products. That’s a maximum of 30g of sugar a day for adults, which is roughly 7 teaspoons. Children should have less – no more than 19g a day for children aged 4 to 6 years old (5 sugar cubes), and no more than 24g (6 sugar cubes) for children aged 7 to 10 years old. Alarmingly, we are currently eat 2 – 3 times more sugar than this.
Sugar is hidden
A very small percentage of the total sugar we eat is sugar that we add to foods and drinks, for example in tea, coffee or when baking. The majority of sugar comes from the everyday packaged foods and drinks we buy and eat. The top five contributors of sugar are soft drinks and juices, cereals, cakes and biscuits, sweets, chocolates and jams.
The amount of sugar found in soft drinks is staggering. The majority of sugary soft drinks available in supermarkets exceed the maximum daily recommendation for sugar intake for an adult (30g) and a child (24g). It is therefore not possible to state that these drinks can be consumed as part of a ‘healthy balanced diet’ even though drinks companies claim it can be.
How much sugar?
Fruit juice contains sugars?
Yes. However, whereas the sugar found in whole fruit and vegetables is not of concern, drinking fruit and vegetables in the form of smoothies or 100 unsweetened fruit or vegetable juice, increases the amount of sugars in your diet. In a whole piece of fruit or vegetable the sugar is encapsulated within the cell structure, meaning that your sugar is released slowly and is served to your body with fibre. However, the processing of fruit and vegetables into fruit juice or smoothies releases ‘free’ sugars and can reduce the fibre content. A single 150ml portion of a smoothie or 100 fruit juice can contribute towards a maximum of one of our 5 A DAY, which is important to achieve to help prevent many diseases. However, we should not drink more than this to avoid excess free sugar intake. These drinks are best accompanied with a meal to reduce increasing the risk of tooth decay, and to improve absorption of iron due to their vitamin C content.
Overall the healthiest way to consume fruit and vegetables is to eat them, rather than drink them.
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Kawther Hashem is a Registered Nutritionist and currently working for Action on Sugar and CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health), a charity organisation concerned with the health effects of a high sugar and salt diet and Researcher at Queen Mary University of London. You can find her on Instagram and on Twitter.