As a campaigner for a healthier Britain, I’m delighted at the focus on sugar consumption but there’s still a lot of confusion.   So much of our sugar consumption slips under the radar or is categorised as ‘good sugar’ and ‘bad sugar’.   Now the term ‘free sugar’ is being used more and more in order to more clearly educate shoppers so that they can make better choices.

But what does free sugar mean?

Free sugars are the added sugars we have in our diet.  That’s not just the spoonfuls of white stuff we ladle into cups of tea or sprinkle over cereal. It includes:

  1.  Sugars added to foods and drink by the manufacturer, cook or consumer.
  2.  Sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.  So when you read ‘natural fruit sugar’, ‘only nature’s own sugar added’, ‘sweetened only with honey’, ‘sweetened with apple juice’ and countless others, don’t be fooled for a second – think ‘sugar’!

The only sugars not included in the term ‘free sugar’ are those found naturally in whole fruit and vegetables and in milk. There is no evidence to suggest that these sugars are associated with any harmful effects – and the benefits of having plenty of fruit, vegetables and milk are likely to far outweigh any possible adverse effects of the sugar they contain. (However, be aware – some fruits can be very high in sugar).

So …….How much sugar is too much?

Taking the rough calculation of 2000kcals per day as the amount of energy we need from our food and drink, and we aim for just 5% of our calorie intake from free sugar, we are talking only 6 teaspoons worth.

Sounds do-able?

Let’s put it into context.   It’s not so easy when you consider a can of coke or a glass of orange juice contains 50% more than the ideal daily intake – around 9 teaspoons of sugar!  A bowl of cereal can contain over 3 teaspoons, a shop bought sandwich may contain a teaspoon or more and even a can of soup contains 5 teaspoons. (We won’t even think about the 20 teaspoons reportedly found in a large chai latte from a major coffee shop chain). It soon adds up!     Flavoured waters such as Volvic contain 3-4 teaspoons of sugar per bottle. Even a 200ml glass of orange juice contains 5 teaspoons of sugar – and some smoothies can contain many more. Just because it is called ‘natural fruit sugar’ doesn’t mean it is any more healthy!

That’s just drinks – what about hidden sugars in other products? 80% of processed food contains hidden sugar.

Artificial Sweeteners?

So ….. manufacturers will replace sugar with artificial sweeteners. Is that the answer?   Well, whilst they may possibly be healthier than sugar we do not really know the long term effects of sweeteners in increased amounts.   And they do nothing to reduce our desire for that sugary fix. Instead, I believe, we need to reduce our sweet tooth overall – with government and industry working as one to do this, as was done with salt. If we slowly reduce our need for that intense sweetness, we can reduce our sugar intake without really noticing – and without the use of chemicals. Best of all, let’s go back to eating real, not processed food and drink – where we don’t have to worry about hidden sugar!

But what more can be done?

It’s not just a matter of telling consumers to reduce sugar intake:

  1. foods need to be reformulated to contain less sugar
  2. advice needs to be given on cutting portion size
  3. advertising rules need tightening

Take for example, advertising.   Smoking was a huge health issue and banning advertising proved successful.   We don’t need food temptations in our face every time we switch on the TV – and our kids may be even more vulnerable. A study of food advertising in 13 countries across 5 continents found that a child who was watching 2 hours of television per day may see 28-84 food advertisements per week – food with high energy density and poor nutritional value. That has got to be affecting their food choices.

Food choices are ultimately down to the individual but manufacturers/industry/government all have a role to play in what food contains, how it is sold and how easy it is for shoppers to make a ‘better’ choice.     I set up the Vavista Eat Better, Live Better, Work Better Awards last year – it offers a free endorsement and clear logo for products which offer a healthier choice within their category.    There are thousands of brands both big and small who are recognising not only their health responsibilities to the nation but the profitability of riding on the rising health awareness in the UK.   My aim is to support initiatives that genuinely strive to improve the health of Britain.

Sally Norton is a UK Leading Health Expert, NHS Weight Loss Surgeon, Founder of and

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