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The ultimate guide to sugar and sweeteners: how to limit your intake

The lowdown on everything to do with sugar including recommended intakes, what to look for on labels and what you need to know about the alternatives

Sugar is currently top of the food villain chart. It has spent the last few decades being quietly used as a filler, flavour enhancer and texture provider, particularly in lieu of fat, so turns out we’ve been eating more of it than we thought. Too much of anything generally is not a good thing, so here’s some information that may help you recognise and find hidden sugar. Provided you can actively make a choice about when and where you eat sugar, you can be in control of how much you and your family consume. 

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Recommended guidelines for sugar

In July 2015, SACN (and the NHS – see box) recommended that adults should get no more than 5% of their calorie intake from free sugar (see decoder p116). Naturally occurring sugars (see decoder) are not included in these measures. This is half the amount previously recommended.

Children aged 4-6: No more than 19g (5 tsp) per day 

Children aged 7-10: No more than 24g (6 tsp) per day 

Children over 11 and adults: No more than 30g (7 tsp) per day 


Nutritional advice

Nutritional advice is not often global unless it is provided by bodies such as WHO (World Health Organisation). Each country has its own guidelines and these can be impartial or not; large food businesses can hold considerable political sway and are rich enough to lobby government. In the UK, the SACN (Scientific Advisory Committee) advise the government’s Public Health England, and there are independent charities and bodies who also give out advice such as the Royal Society for Public Health
(rsph.org.uk).


What to look for on a nutrition label

If sugars are listed as carbohydrates (of which sugars) you can work out how much a product contains:

More than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g = high 

5g of total sugars or less per 100g = low

Anything in between = medium

This refers to the total amount of sugar, so you need to take a view on where the sugars have come from; they may be part of the milk, vegetables or fruit, or have been added. For example, a 125g fruit yogurt may contain 15.9g of total sugar, most of it free or added sugar, whereas if you ate 125g plain yogurt with some whole berries on top, the total amount of sugar may remain the same but none of it will be free sugar.

Sugar on labels comes under many names; sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose (anything ending in –ose), hydrolysed starch and invert sugar, corn syrup, agave, molasses and honey are all added sugars. The higher up the list of ingredients they are, the more there is of them.


Useful resources

If you find a traffic light system easier to follow, visit sugarsnub.co.uk where you can buy a download or book
that lists over 7,000 processed and ready-made foods from breakfast cereals to soups. It also lists saturated fat, salt and calories. 


Sugar decoder

Carbohydrates 

These can be complex carbohydrate starches such as cereals, bread and pasta, or simple carbohydrates such as sugar.

Free sugars  

According to the WHO, this term applies to any sugar added to processed foods, home cooking or food consumed (sugar on breakfast cereal or in tea for example), plus those found in honey, syrups and natural fruit juices (juicing makes the sugar in fruit ‘free’).As these are added sugars, the product or dish they are added to often has little nutritional value.

Naturally occurring sugars 

These can be found within milk and milk products, and fruit and vegetables whether they’re fresh, dried, canned or frozen. Naturally occurring sugars still contain calories, but the foods they exist within usually have benefits such as vitamins, fibre, minerals and protein, and the sugar tends to be digested more slowly and take longer to enter the bloodstream. 

Sugar substitutes 

Taste sweet but don’t have such high amounts of calories. They can occur naturally or be synthetic. Natural substitutes for sugar include stevia, sorbitol and xylitol.Artificial sugar substitutes include aspartame, saccharin and sucralose. 

Sugar 

Sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates. Sugars include monosaccharides such as glucose (dextrose), fructose and galactose, and disaccharides such as sucrose (for eating and baking, which breaks down into glucose and fructose in your body), maltose and lactose. 


Sweeteners

Scientists increasingly believe, on the basis that so many studies are conflicting, that the effect sweeteners have on people is highly individual and may all depend on the types of gut bacteria you have. They help some people lose weight while others may gain. More worryingly, some studies show they may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes.   

Aspartame

Derived from two amino acids, this looks like white sugar but is 200x sweeter.

Stevia

A natural, calorie-free sweetener from stevia plants that is 200-300x sweeter than sugar, approved for use in the EU since 2011.  Truvia is a commercial brand.

Agave nectar

Natural sweetener collected from agave plants.As it has much more fructose (about 70%), it has a lower glycemic index but the same amount of calories. It’s 1.5x sweeter than white sugar.

Xylitol

A natural sweetener derived mainly from birch trees, this is lower in calories than sugar by 30% and has a low GI. It’s also believed to inhibit the growth of those bacteria in the mouth that cause tooth decay, so you may have come across it in Peppersmith mints or chewing gum. It has a laxative effect when eaten in large quantities and can’t be used in baked goods that require yeast to make the dough rise. Xylitol will not caramelize or brown baked goods.

Coconut palm sugar

This has a lower GI than sugar and contains small amounts of amino acids, minerals and B vitamins. 

Raw honey

Honey that hasn’t been heat-treated contains tiny amounts of enzymes and antioxidants and has antibacterial properties but refined honey contains far fewer. It is, however, marginally higher in calories than sugar per teaspoon (though not by weight) as it’s more dense, though as it’s sweeter, in theory, you may eat less. 

Maple syrup

The concentrated sap of sugar maple trees, contains traces of vitamins and minerals and organic acids.Always use 100% pure maple syrup.


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