When is sugar content a concern and when can we enjoy it without fearing for our health? We explain the two types, how to work out sugar content and the bigger picture…
Experts confirmed last summer that we’re all eating way too much sugar. As a result, products such as ready-made sauces, pizzas, breads, cereals, drinks, soups and even salads have all been named and shamed for their sugar contents.
But the scare stories can be misleading. What most reviews do is simply look at the total amount of sugar in products, rather than the type of sugar – or what else the product contains in the way of nutrients.
The two types
When new recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition advised cutting the maximum amount of sugar in half from 10% of daily calories to just 5% (equal to about 30g or 7tsp sugar), they were talking about ‘free’ sugars. Basically the baddies, these include all added sugars, plus fruit juice, honey and any sugars found naturally in syrups or extracts such as maple syrup or agave nectar. The reason? Eating free sugars in large quantities is linked to obesity and dental decay and, when in the form of drinks, to type 2 diabetes.
The kind we don’t need to worry about are the ‘intrinsic’ sugars found naturally in milk, fruit and vegetables. These come packaged with other valuable nutrients, and we don’t tend to overeat them because all those other nutrients help to fill us up. They’re not as harmful to teeth, either, and tend not to be overloaded with calories.
Working it out
The problem is, while some foods obviously contain just free sugars (think chocolate, sweets, fizzy drinks and biscuits), many of the foods and meals we eat contain a mixture of free and intrinsic sugars. For example, cereal with milk, a ready-made tomato sauce and a pot of yogurt all contain both types.
Unfortunately, the nutrition panels on packs don’t help us to distinguish between the two. Current labelling laws mean manufacturers have to give values for the total amount of sugars in a product, rather than a value for free sugars. It’s this figure that tends to be reported in the media, so a product containing lots of fruit, for example, will score badly. This means we need to look at the ingredients list to get a clearer picture. As a basic guide, alternative names for free sugars include dextrose, maltose, fructose, glucose, any kind of syrup, molasses, corn sweeteners, or any variation of these names. And if a product contains honey, fruit juice or fruit juice concentrates, these also count as free sugars.
Even then, it’s impossible to translate the information given into an actual quantity (or teaspoon equivalent) of free sugars. We can only work out whether most of the sugars are added or occur naturally, and adjust our overall daily intake accordingly.
The big picture
When looking at sugar content, we also need to take into account the whole nutrition package: what else does that food provide in the way of fat, saturates, salt, protein, vitamins and minerals? The HFG team recently came across a document highlighting the sugar content of a range of breakfasts. A smoothie came out as one of the worst choices for sugar, while a blueberry muffin, full English breakfast, pain au chocolat, bacon roll with ketchup, sausage and egg muffin and plain butter croissant were all shown to contain less. The intentions may have been good, but the implication was that all these were better choices as they contained less sugar.
Not so. The croissant, which was pinpointed as the best choice for sugar, was considerably higher in calories, fat, saturates and salt, and extremely low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, while the pure fruit smoothie, which came out worse for sugar, was lower in calories, low in fat, saturates and salt, and provided fibre and a range of vitamins and antioxidants.
Healthy Food Guide nutrition consultant, Juliette Kellow explains how sugar in your diet adds up here.