The facts about sugar

Most adults and children in the UK eat too much sugar. Cut down by eating fewer sugary foods, such as sweets, cakes and biscuits, and drinking fewer sugary soft drinks.

Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don't need to cut down on these types of sugars.

Sugars are also added to a wide range of foods, such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and some fizzy drinks and juice drinks. These are the sugary foods that we should cut down on.

Why cut down on sugars?

Evidence from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that most adults and children eat more sugar than is recommended as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Many foods that contain added sugars are also high in energy, which is measured in either kilojoules (kJ) or calories (kcal), so eating these foods often can contribute to you becoming overweight.

Food and drinks that have a lot of added sugars contain calories, but often have few other nutrients. To eat a healthy, balanced diet, we should eat these types of foods only occasionally, and get the majority of our calories from other kinds of foods such as starchy foods and fruits and vegetables. Learn more in A balanced diet.

Sugary foods and drinks can also cause tooth decay, especially if you eat them between meals. The longer the sugary food is in contact with the teeth, the more damage it can cause.

The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit. But when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth, especially if fruit juice is drunk frequently.

Fruit juice is still a healthy choice, and counts as one of your recommended daily five portions of fruit and vegetables. But it is best to drink fruit juice at mealtimes in order to minimise damage to your teeth.

Tips to cut down on sugars

For a healthy, balanced diet, cut down on foods and drinks containing added sugars.

These tips can help you cut down:

  • Instead of sugary fizzy drinks and juice drinks, go for water or unsweetened fruit juice (remember to dilute these for children to further reduce the sugar).
  • If you like fizzy drinks, try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water.
  • Swap cakes or biscuits for a currant bun, scone or some malt loaf with low-fat spread.
  • If you take sugar in hot drinks or add sugar to your breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether.
  • Rather than spreading jam, marmalade, syrup, treacle or honey on your toast, try a low-fat spread, sliced banana or low-fat cream cheese instead.
  • Check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the low-sugar version.
  • Try halving the sugar you use in your recipes – it works for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream.
  • Choose tins of fruit in juice rather than syrup.
  • Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals, but not those coated with sugar or honey.

Find out more ways of cutting out sugar from your diet.

Nutrition labels and sugars

Nutrition labels often tell you how much sugar a food contains. You can compare labels and choose foods that are lower in sugar.

Look for the "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)" figure in the nutrition label.

  • high – over 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
  • low – 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

If the amount of sugars per 100g is between these figures, then that is a medium level of sugars.

The sugars figure in the nutrition label is the total amount of sugars in the food. It includes sugars from fruit and milk, as well as the sugars that have been added.

A food containing lots of fruit or milk will be a healthier choice than one that contains lots of added sugars, even if the two products contain the same total amount of sugars. You can tell if the food contains lots of added sugars by checking the ingredients list (see below).

Sometimes you will see a figure for "Carbohydrates", and not for "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)".

The "Carbohydrates" figure will also include starchy carbohydrates, so you can't use it to work out the sugar content. In this case, check the ingredients list to see if the food is high in added sugars.

Labels on the front of packaging

There are labels containing nutrition information on the front of some food packaging.

This includes labels that use red, amber and green colour-coding and advice on reference intakes (RI) of some nutrients, which can include sugar.

Labels that include colour-coding allow you to see at a glance if the food is high, medium or low in sugars.

  • red = high
  • amber = medium
  • green = low

Some labels on the front of packaging will display the amount of sugar in the food as a proportion of the RI. RIs are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients required for a healthy diet. For more, see Food labels.

Ingredients list

You can get an idea of whether a food is high in added sugars by looking at the ingredients list. Added sugars must be included in the ingredients list, which always starts with the biggest ingredient. This means that if you see sugar near the top of the list, you know the food is likely to be high in added sugars.

Watch out for other words used to describe added sugars, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch and invert sugar, corn syrup and honey.

For more on other food label terms, such as "no added sugar", see Food labelling terms.

Page last reviewed: 17/04/2013

Next review due: 17/04/2015

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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

angusbaxter said on 03 September 2013

It can be very difficult to reduce sugar intake when food producers and retailers constantly bombard customers with sugar - adding it recklessly to every kind of food. I recently visited Marks and Spencer's to buy sandwich filling and was shocked to note that virtually everything that I might want to use in a sandwich had added sugar, including tuna and sweetcorn and cheese and onion. Even their cooked meats had added sugar! This is shocking. Clearly in their pursuit of profits retailers have no concern about the nation's health. I think we need legislation to stop retailers (and wholesaler from sneaking sugar into otherwise healthy food.

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User363614 said on 19 March 2013

Scones have a GI of around 90; they are broken down into blood glucose faster than table sugar. Why would people be better to substitute one refined sugar with another? Bad idea! If you're going to give advice, please analyse its quality.

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ollivie ru said on 19 February 2013

Yes, very useful information. Something like that I learned that sugar is very harmful and fattening of it, but I'm sorry, but if I can not live without sugar? Honey and other natural sweetness is not for me. So I will risk your health, but there'll be what I want.

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Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015