SUGAR – what’s the big deal?


SUGAR – what’s the big deal?

Have you ever taken a step back and written down your own 24-hour food intake? Sugar is everywhere and we are consuming it without even realising.

What is sugar, where do we find it and is it really so bad?

What is sugar?

Sugars are carbohydrates and are comprised of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Carbohydrates are a major source of energy in the diet and can be divided into ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ forms depending on their structure.

Complex carbohydrates such as bread, rice, pasta, potato, noodles and other starchy foods are often considered fattening. These foods in fact provide a lot of bulk, without too many calories. They can also provide a valuable source of Folate, B vitamins and Iron. The energy content is increased significantly when fats such as butter, cream, cheese or oil are added to these foods.

It’s the simple carbohydrates that are the concern – now called ‘free sugars’.

Where do we find ‘free sugars’?

‘Free sugars’ comprises all sugars added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. The main sources in the UK diet are sugars-sweetened drinks (including carbonated drinks, juice drinks, energy drinks, squashes and cordials); cereal-based products (biscuits, cakes, pastries and sweetened breakfast cereals); table sugar and confectionery; and fruit juice.

This also includes a number of popular items that have emerged in health food stores such as Agave nectar, honey, maple, molasses, and turbinado sugar. These are often viewed as more natural choices because they’re derived from plant sources, so they may be perceived to be more healthful options. The evidence doesn’t support that perception. The metabolism of all sugars follows a similar pathway.

Under this definition lactose (the sugar in milk) when naturally present in milk and milk products and the sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods (particularly fruits and vegetables) are excluded.

Why is it so bad?

The latest headlines are stating that ‘sugar intake should be halved’. This is because the government recently asked the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) to review the impact of sugar on the health of the population. They re-reviewed the best quality evidence. This had not been done for 20 years! The evidence identified strengthened the detrimental effects of sugar that was identified back in 1991. Unsurprisingly, high sugar intakes were associated with higher incidence of energy intake (ultimately increasing weight), tooth decay and type 2 diabetes. They recommend adults should consume no more than 30g (7 sugar cubes) per day.

Some common sources:

Item Total Sugar (g) ‘Free Sugar’ (g)
Cola 330mls 36 36
Calorie free Cola 330ml 0 0
Fruit Yoghurt 125g 15.9 11.25
Natural Yoghurt 125g 9.9 0
Semi- Skimmed milk 200ml 9.4 0
Flavoured milk 200ml 28 16.2
Orange 160g 12.9 12.9
Orange Juice 150ml 13.6 0
Honey 5g 3.8 3.8


Surely if we reduce sugar were going to compromise with something else?

If you are of a healthy weight for your height (body mass index between 20-25kg/m2) SACN recommend replacing ‘free sugars’ with complex carbohydrates, sugars contained within the cellular structure (e.g. whole fruits and vegetables) and dairy products. In those who are overweight or obese, the reduction in ‘free sugars’ would be part of a strategy to decrease energy intake.

Although there are an increasing number of foods available that are high in sugars, we have an increasing body of evidence to inform your choices. YOU have the ability to make healthy choices. So perhaps take a minute to grab a pen and paper. Write down everything you have eaten over the past 24hours.

Does your diet contain higher than the recommendation for sugar consumption? If so, write down 3 ways in which you can change this.

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Katherine Kimber

Katherine graduated from King's College University of London achieving a First Class Honours in Bsc Nutrition and Dietetics. Her experience extends to a wide range of clinical settings, in both the community and hospitals, across a variety of patient groups, as far afield as Australia. She is currently working as a Specialist Renal Dietitian in Barts Health NHS Trust, and is also registered as a Freelance Dietitian based at The Clockhouse, in Epsom, Surrey. She offers advice on healthy eating, weight management and type 2 diabetes, oral nutrition support as well as a range of other diseases. Please enquire for further information.

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