We all know about how bad for us sugar really is, and the past few months have seen some great news in the fight against sugar! Despite my fears that The World Health Organisation’s attempts to produce clear guidance on sugar consumption would be thwarted by the sugar industry, it seems they have held strong. Good news! The new recommendations are that adults and children should limit intake of free sugars to less than 10% of our daily intake, and ideally 5%.
But what does free sugar really mean?
Free sugars are the added sugars we have in our diet. That’s not just the spoonfuls of white stuff we ladle into cups of tea or sprinkle over cereal. It includes sugars added to foods and drink by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. And it also means sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. This one’s really important as manufacturers are always trying to fool us by using the terms ‘natural fruit sugar’ or ‘sweetened only with honey’, not to mention the countless other terms, which make us think that we are having something healthy, when in fact, these ’natural sugars’ could be just as bad for us as the white stuff! And they use all sorts of terms for sugar on the product labelling so have a look at our check list to make sure you aren’t duped! The simple, and more honest translation of all of these terms, in my opinion, should be ‘contains added sugar’. So, don’t be fooled for a second!
How much sugar is too much?
Okay, let me do some maths for you. Taking the rough calculation of 2000kcals per day as the amount of energy we need from our food and drink, the WHO recommends that no more than 10% of that, or 200kcals, should be from added sugar.
Sugar is a carbohydrate, and carbohydrate has 4kcals of energy per gramme. So, that 200kcals of added sugar is 50g worth in weight. So, how much is 50g? Well, as a teaspoon of sugar weighs 4g or so, 50g of sugar is equivalent to around 12 teaspoons. And if we want to go a step further and aim for just 5% of our calorie intake from free sugar, then we are talking only 6 teaspoons worth.
This might sound a lot but when you consider a can of coke or a glass of orange juice contains around 9 teaspoons of sugar, a bowl of cereal can contain over 3 teaspoons, a shop bought sandwich may contain a teaspoon or more and even a can of soup contains 5 teaspoons. (We won’t even think about the 20 teaspoons reportedly found in a large chai latte from a major coffee shop chain). It soon adds up!
So, what can we do?
Without getting obsessive about it, I think there are three main areas you can tackle right now:
- Extract that sweet tooth
Start trying to gradually reduce your sweet tooth by cutting back on the amount of sugar you knowingly add to tea, coffee, cereal etc. Replace sugary drinks with water wherever possible and you will soon find that extra sweetness too much to take!
- Consider sugar substitutes
I am not advocating artificial sweeteners long-term, as cutting back our need for sweetness is what we are aiming for and sweeteners may have their own problems… but if you need help in weaning yourself off those sugar highs, a sugar substitute may be useful for a while. Xylitol or stevia products seem to be associated with fewer reports of adverse effects (so far at least). And the sweet-tasting fibres, inulin and oligofructose, help promote healthy gut bacteria…unlike most artificial sweeteners that are toxic to them.
- Wise up
Most importantly, read labels and look carefully for the hidden or misleadingly labeled sugars that are found in 85% of the food and drink products on our supermarket shelves. Look at the sugar content in grammes on the label and divide by four to work out how many teaspoons of sugar that means per serving not per 100g. Even if you don’t manage to keep to 6 or 12 teaspoons per day, you will at least become more aware of where those sugars are lurking and you are likely to think twice before tucking in.
https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/guidelines/sugars_intake/en/ BMJ 2015;350:h1322