Sugar – what do I need to know?

For a long time dietary advice has focused on reducing fat and particularly saturated fat intake. Whilst food products have been reformulated to reduce their fat content, the fat has been replaced mostly with sugar. Soft drinks are strongly marketed, particularly to children. Sugar has been viewed as damaging to the teeth but little more. Now revised dietary guidelines are being considered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and some scientists and health professionals are highlighting the potential dangers of eating too much sugar.


My belief is that the focus on reducing our fat intake has been to the detriment of our health when our sugar intake has increased and we would do much better to focus on reducing processed foods and refined carbohydrates like white bread, and sugary foods rather than worry about how much fat we are eating. If you are confused have a look at these five facts about sugar:

  1. Dietary reference values (DRVs) are higher for fat than sugar expressed in energy intakeDRVs are set so that the nutritional adequacy of diets can be assessed and reflect the needs of the general population. There are no recommended requirements for sugar and fat as there is no absolute requirement for them (other than for small quantities of omega-3 and omega-6 fats). However, current UK DRVs for sugar intake are 10% or less of total energy intake, or 60g (or 11% if 5% of dietary energy is obtained from alcohol). For total fat they are 35% or less of total energy, or 87g (slightly more for men, and slightly less for women. So we are able to eat a lot more fat for health than sugar. This might suggest that fat is less of a health risk than sugar.
  2. The WHO is reviewing its recommendations for sugar intakeOn March 5th 2014, the WHO published draft guidelines on the consumption of ‘free sugars’ by adults and children. Free sugars are defined as sugars added to food by manufacturers or cooks and those sugars contained in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates, also called non-milk extrinsic sugars (NMES). The WHO’s current guidelines recommend that people consume no more than 10% total energy from sugars (WHO/FAO, 2003). This works out at 53g for an average woman and for an average man 67g per day. However, because we all have different body weights, we each have a different requirement, so this figure could vary dramatically from person to person. It is worth noting this is the minimum amount to aim for. It is recognised that we do not need to eat any sugar at all for health, unlike fat which we need.The WHO has also made a conditional recommendation to reduce sugar intake to 5% of total energy. A conditional recommendation means there needs to be further debate about the benefits of the recommendation before it is made policy. But the fact that the WHO are considering a reduction to 5% total energy recommendation adds weight to the view that the rise in sugar consumption is a cause for concern.
  3. We consume more than 10% of energy from sugars (the UK DRV)The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) (2008/09-2010/11) found that the DRV for fat is not being exceeded but it is for sugar, most notably in children aged 11 to 18 where intakes were on average 15.3% of food energy. So we are eating too much sugar, especially children, according to the recommendations, but not too much fat, and yet obesity rates are increasing. So can it really be eating fat that makes us fat?
  4. You cannot trust the percentage amount of your GDA (Guideline Daily Amounts) on the front of the packGDAs were created by the Institute of Grocery Distribution in 2005 and were intended as a guide for consumers when comparing products. Due to the focus on reducing dietary fat to prevent heart disease, the sugar content of many foods has been increased. This includes hidden sugar in unexpected products such as tomato ketchup, soups, sandwiches, ready meals, even salads and sushi. I recently bought a vegetarian salad from a high-street food provider and it contained 28.6g of sugar (NMES). Given the current UK DRV for sugar intake of 10% energy from sugar, or 60g, this salad would provide over 50% of this. However, the label stated it provided 32%. This is because manufacturers use the GDA for sugar of 90g to calculate the percentage you are getting in a portion.
  5. It is easy to consume a lot of sugar from soft drinksSoft drinks are an easy way to consume a lot of sugar and are marketed strongly at children. A recently published report in Diabetologia found that there was an association between the number of cans of soft drinks consumed and the risk of developing diabetes and this was also present where artificially sweetened drinks were consumed. This means for every can of soft drinks that you drink per day you are at a higher risk of developing diabetes.My recommendation: Consume sugar with caution particularly if you are overweight. Avoid soft drinks (diet or not), avoid sweets, make as much of your food yourself so you know how much sugar is in it. Watch out for hidden sugar in manufactured products. Above all listen to your body and enjoy your food.



WHO (World Health Organization) /FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)(2003) 2002 WHO/FAO Expert Consultation on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases Accessed 16/3/14

BNF (British Nutrition Foundation) website, Summary of the WHO guidelines: Sugar intakes for children and adults (2014) Accessed 16/3/14

NHS Choices website, Food Labels (2013) Accessed 16/3/14

NatCen Social Research, National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2008/9-2010/11 Accessed 16/3/14

Diabetologia 2013 56:7 pp1520-1530 Consumption of sweet beverages and type 2 diabetes incidence in European adults: results from EPIC-InterAct Accessed 22/3/14


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