A Guide to Free Sugars

The concept of free sugars can be confusing and somewhat daunting; we provide you with advice on reducing your intake

Free sugars are not what their name may suggest: sugars that can be consumed with no guilt. In fact, the complete opposite is true. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines free sugars as ‘all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices’. Monosaccharides are made up of a single sugar molecule and include glucose, fructose and galactose. Disaccharides have two molecules; the most commonly known disaccharide is sucrose—or table sugar. Other examples in this category include agave nectar, molasses, treacle and maple syrup. Excluded from this group are sugars found in the cellular structure of whole foods such as raw fruits and vegetables, along with the lactose in milk products. This grouping also goes by another name—intrinsic sugars. 

The recommended amount 

Most people will be familiar with the term ‘added sugar’, which features on the majority of food labels. While there isn’t a concrete definition for added sugar, it tends to refer to the same group of sugars as free sugars. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has recently halved the recommended daily amount of free sugars from 10 percent of dietary energy to five percent or less. Per day this equates to roughly: 

Children four to six years: 19 grams (five sugar cubes)

Children seven to 10 years: 24 grams (six sugar cubes)

Children 11+ years and adults: 30 grams (seven sugar cubes)

The revision of the SACN’s recommendations has been made due to strong indications that free sugars have a negative effect on health. A Public Health England (PHE) report in 2015 stated: ‘Since carbohydrate recommendations were last considered in 1991, the evidence indicating that a high intake of free sugars is detrimental to several health outcomes has strengthened’. The governing body made their proposal after analysing the results from 11 controlled trials devised to study energy intake in relation to sugar proportion in diets. Obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are just some of the possible outcomes of a regular diet with heightened consumption of free sugars.

How can I reduce my intake? 

Now we are aware of the recommended daily allowance, the question remains: how do we adhere to this amount? Most of the sugar we consume on a daily basis is hidden; mixed into baked goods or added to processed drinks. It is very easy to be fooled by certain products; marketing strategies are often used to manipulate customers into thinking that items are healthier than they really are. Free sugars can appear in unexpected places like sauces, ready meals and varieties of bread. 

During your weekly shop, take the time to check food labels for avoidable free sugars. Look out for the ‘Carbohydrate, of which sugars’ section of the label. Although this doesn’t specify the amount of free sugars, it can be a useful comparative to determine overall sugar content. If checking food labels is a daunting notion, consider using the Be Food Smart app. It allows you to scan the barcode of a product and provides you with a coherent breakdown of what sugars, fats and other components are involved. 

Making simple swaps within your dietary repertoire can make all the difference to your daily sugar intake. Opting for water rather than fizzy drinks or fruit juices is one such step you could be taking. Choosing unsweetened wholegrain cereal as opposed to frosted varieties with chocolate or honey is another. For a healthy diet, we should be getting our energy from starchy wholegrain foods and balancing them with fruits, vegetables and proteins. 

Making the following simple swaps can make a huge difference to your sugar intake.

  • Swapping orange juice (200 millilitres) for whole fruit saves five sugar cubes.
  • Swapping regular cola (330 millilitres) for diet cola (330 millilitres) saves nine sugar cubes.
  • Swapping flavoured milk (350 millilitres) for semi-skimmed milk (350 millilitres) saves eight sugar cubes.

Visit the NHS website for more information on healthy living.

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