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Understanding Sugar

Sugars: Learn More, Eat Less

In the UK we love our sweet treats, but too much sugar in our diets can be bad for our health, especially for children.  Too much sugar is linked to an increased risk of tooth decay, weight gain and type 2 diabetes. In particular, the type of sugars that we eat too much of are called ‘free sugars’.

These are mainly sugars which have been added to food and drinks and provide excess calories with limited nutritional value. Some nutritious foods and drinks however, like fruit and milk, contain naturally occurring sugars and it is important not to confuse these with the ‘free’ sugars in our diets.

What is added sugar or ‘free’ sugars?

Working out what free sugars are takes some practice. It is healthier to eat fruit and vegetables whole – whether fresh, frozen or dried -because when a fruit or vegetable is processed (e.g. into a smoothie, fruit juice or puree) the sugars become free sugars. Milk and milk based products contain a naturally occurring sugar (lactose), but any sugars added to create flavour are free sugars (e.g. in a chocolate milkshake or flavoured yoghurt). Honey, other syrups and nectars are free sugars and so if you’re looking to cut down your sugar intake, they are not a useful substitute.

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. It is recommended that children under the age of 4 should avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added.

How to cut down on sugar as a family:
Colour-coded Labelling

Colour-coded labelling makes it easy to see at a glance if a product is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in total sugars, fat, saturates and salt. Guidelines for drinks are different to food because they don’t make us feel full and so are easy to over-consume.

Check Ingredients

If sugar, glucose, honey, syrups and fruit juice concentrates appears in the top three ingredients then it is high in free sugars.

Portion Size

Often, the sugar content on the front of the packet refers to a serving that is smaller than the amount that you may eat or drink. You can reduce your sugar intake by eating and drinking a smaller portion.

Sugar Smart Shopping

Many everyday nutritious foods like breakfast cereals, which contain fibre and important vitamins, can be high in sugar.  Checking food and drink labels allows you to spot these sneaky sugars and compare products and brands to make healthier choices. Sugar is reported on packaging as total sugars, which includes both naturally occurring and free sugars.

Top tips
  • Remove sugar (white and brown), syrup, honey etc from the breakfast table — out of sight, out of mind!
  • Cut back on the amount of sugar added to things you eat or drink regularly like cereal, pancakes, coffee or tea. Try cutting the usual amount of sugar you add by half and wean down from there.
  • Instead of adding sugar to cereal or porridge, add fresh or dried fruit instead.
  • Try unsweetened natural yogurt with fruit rather than a sweetened variety.
  • When baking biscuits, brownies or cakes, cut the sugar in your recipe by one-third to one-half or try using extracts such as almond, vanilla, orange or lemon.
  • Avoid fizzy drinks that are packed with sugar, try sticking to still or sparkling water.
  • Children love ketchup but it can contain up to 30% sugar. Look for reduced sugar varieties, watch the portion size or try making your own.
  • Try to substitute cakes, biscuits or ice cream with fruit salads, sugar-free jelly or simply a couple of squares of dark chocolate for desert. Avoid choosing fruits that are canned in syrup, instead choose fruits that are canned in their own juice.
  • When eating out at restaurants try splitting a dessert or choose fruit instead.
  • Keep non-sugar alternatives handy for when a craving strikes. Light and small snacks can be packed in a snap-lock bag or reusable container and most can be made at the start of the week, ready to go. Plain nuts, oatcakes with cheese or corn cakes make great low sugar snacks.
  • Use FoodSwitch UK an award-winning free smartphone app, to help you find food and drink products with less sugar.

Action on Sugar’s annual Sugar Awareness Week will take place from 12th -18th November 2018, check out our website for updates

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