How does sugar in our diet affect our health?

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 drinks.

The kind of sugar we eat too much of is known as the collective term "free sugars". Free sugars are any sugars added to food or drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.

Many foods and drinks that contain added sugars can be high in energy (measured in either kilojoules/kJ or calories/kcal) and often have few other nutrients. Eating these foods too often can mean you eat more calories than you need, which can lead to weight gain and obesity.

Being overweight can increase your risk of health conditions such as:

In particular, drinking lots of sugary drinks has been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. 

For a healthy, balanced diet, we should get the majority of our calories from other kinds of foods, such as starchy foods and fruits and vegetables, and only eat these foods occasionally.

Learn more about how to have a balanced diet.

Sugar and tooth decay

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 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. When fruit is dried, some sugars can be released, and dried fruit has a tendency to stick to teeth.

Limit fruit juice to a small (150ml) glass a day from juice, smoothies or both. Remember to keep it to mealtimes, as it can cause tooth decay. Watch out for drinks that say "juice drink" on the pack, as they are unlikely to count towards your 5 A DAY and can be high in sugar.

Try to swap dried fruit for fresh fruit. To reduce the risk of tooth decay, dried fruit is best enjoyed as part of a meal, such as dessert, and not as a between-meal snack.

How much sugar can we eat?

The government recommends that free or added sugars shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day. That's a maximum of 30g of added sugar a day for adults, which is roughly seven sugar cubes.

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.

Added sugars are found in foods such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and some fizzy drinks and juice drinks – these are the sugary foods we should cut down on. For example, a can of cola can have as much as 9 cubes of added sugar.

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

Find out what some of the top sources of added sugar are.

Free or added sugars shouldn't be confused with 'total sugars', which you'll see on food labels. Find out more about nutrition labels and sugar.

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 to cut down:

  • Instead of sugary fizzy drinks or sugary squash, go for water, lower fat milks, or sugar free, diet and no added sugar drinks. Remember that even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so limit the amount you have to no more than 150ml a day.
  • If you prefer fizzy drinks, try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water.
  • 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 lower-fat spread, sliced banana or lower-fat cream cheese instead.
  • Check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the lower-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 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, that is regarded as a medium level.

The sugars figure in the nutrition label is the total amount of sugars in the food. 'Total sugars’ describes the total amount of sugars from all sources (free sugars plus those from milk and those present in the structure of foods such as fruit and vegetables).

For example, a plain yogurt may contain 9.9g total sugars but none of these are free sugars as they all come from milk. The same applies to an individual portion of fresh fruit salad that might contain around 20g of total sugars, depending on the fruits selected, all of which are naturally present within the cellular structure of the fruit (rather than ‘free’).”

This means that 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.

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 instance, 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 reference intake. Reference intakes are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet. The reference intake for total sugars is 90g a day, which includes the 30g of “free sugars”.

For more information, 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, the food is likely to be high in added sugars.

Watch out for other words used to describe added sugars, such as cane sugar, honey, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, glucose, crystalline sucrose, nectars.

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

Page last reviewed: 15/05/2015

Next review due: 15/05/2017

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