What is sugar and what is it used for?
Sugar is a natural ingredient which gives sweetness for a range of food and drinks. As a traditional kitchen ingredient, it has been used for centuries to provide structure, texture, flavour, and sweetness to all kinds of products. It is also used in manufacturing, and provides a natural preservative effect.
What are the most common types of sugar?
- Sucrose is often called table sugar. Made up from glucose and fructose, it is extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet and also naturally present in most fruits and vegetables
- Glucose and fructose are found in fruits, vegetables and honey
- Lactose is commonly called milk sugar because it is found in milk and dairy products
- Maltose is also known as malt sugar and is found in malted drinks and beer.
Can sugars be hidden?
No. Sugar can never be hidden in food or drinks. The food labels on the back (or side) of pack always show the
list of ingredients (in descending order of weight), as well as the total sugars contained in the product per 100g
or per 100ml of product. Labels sometimes also show this information per portion and as a percentage of the
Reference Intake (the new term for Guideline Daily Amounts) – to help you know just how much sugar you’re
consuming in a single serving. This information can be found on the nutrition panel listed as “carbohydrates –
of which sugars” (41)(47)
. It is worth noting that the ‘sugars’ on pack are total sugars, which includes any sugars
used in manufacturing and those contained naturally in the product e.g. from fruit or vegetables.
What is the difference between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars?
Added sugars (also known as free sugars) are those used in manufacturing or added by the cook or consumer. Naturally occurring sugars are those found naturally in a product e.g. fruit or vegetables
How can I find out how much sugars are actually in my food or drink?
There are three different places on pack where you can find out how much sugars there are in a food or drink
product. The first is the ingredients list which lists out all the ingredients used to make the product in
descending order of weight. The second is on the nutritional information panel typically found on the back of
pack which lists out all the major nutrients including the amount of total sugars contained in 100g or per 100ml
of product. The third is on the front or back-of-pack where you may find a Reference Intake label, a traffic-light
label or a combination of the two. Here you can check just how many grams of sugars a portion contains. This
can all help you to make informed choices by making it easier for you to put the nutritional content of what
you’re eating or drinking into the context of your overall diet. For more information visit our Food Labels and
On a food label, when it lists the total sugars a product contains, is this the amount of sugar (sucrose) added by the manufacturer?
No. The total sugars listed on a food label include any sugars used in manufacturing (also known as added sugars or free sugars) and those contained naturally in the product e.g. from fruit or vegetables.
Why don’t manufacturers show on a food label how much added sugar there is as well as total sugars?
When it comes to identifying ‘added sugars’ (which are those sugars used during food and drink manufacturing), you will not be able to find added sugars listed separately on a label. This is because it’s not possible to accurately analyse the amount of added sugars in a food or drink product as you cannot distinguish naturally occurring sugar from added sugars in a laboratory given they are the same molecules.
For more information, visit our labelling page.
Which sugars are good for me and which are bad for me?
No sugars are better or worse for you; the different sugars are broken down and used in different ways but, most importantly, the body doesn’t distinguish between sugars used in manufacturing or in the kitchen, and those sugars found naturally in fruits and vegetables. For example, sucrose in an apple is broken down in exactly the same way as the sucrose in your sugar bowl. However, the rate of which the sugar (sucrose) is absorbed can vary depending on if the source is a solid or liquid food, for example, in an apple or apple juice.
Is brown sugar better for me than white sugar?
No, both brown and white sugar is a form of sucrose, and contain the same number of calories at four calories per gram.
Does sugar cause obesity and diabetes?
Current scientific evidence does not suggest that sugar directly causes conditions such as obesity or diabetes. Both of these conditions are due to a complex range of factors such as being excess body weight, physical inactivity although other factors such as genetics diet and ethnicity may also play a role (53)
However, like protein, starch, fat and alcohol, sugar is a source of calories in the diet and if we consistently consume more ‘energy’ or calories than our bodies use, this can lead to an accumulation of excess body fat. This can then result in obesity which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Scientific evidence contained within a report published by the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) found no direct link between total sugars intake and diabetes. However, it suggests a greater risk is associated with a higher intake of sugars-sweetened beverages (13)
Why are we eating more sugar?
You might be surprised to know that we aren't. The latest UK Government figures show that while obesity rates continue to rise, total sugars in the diet have actually fallen by around 18% per capita since 2001 (48)
How much sugar per day should I eat?
Current scientific thinking is that approximately 50% of our total dietary intake should come from carbohydrates, including sugars and starches (62).
When it comes to sugars (those added to food and drink, or naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices) they should account for no more than 5% of total dietary energy intake from two years upwards (63)
. That means no more than 19g/day for 4–6 years, no more than 24g/day for 7–10 years and no more than 30g/day for those aged 11 and over (56)
Does sugar rot your teeth?
All food and drinks that contain fermentable carbohydrates (e.g. sugary foods such as cookies, cakes, soft drinks and candy as well as less obvious foods, such as bread, crackers, bananas and breakfast cereals), can increase the risk of tooth decay.
Fermentable carbohydrates (including sugars) are broken down by the bacteria in the mouth to produce acid and this acid can then dissolve away some of the enamel surface of teeth.
Tooth decay can be minimised by limiting the frequency of exposure to all ‘fermentable carbohydrates’ (including sugars) and increasing exposure to fluoride from sources such as fluoridated drinking water, salt, milk and toothpaste. Twice daily tooth brushing with fluoride toothpaste should also be encouraged. Visiting your dentist on a regular basis can also help.
The World Dental Federation (DFI) suggest that the risk of dental caries increases if consuming excessive amounts of sugar from snacks, processed food and soft drinks, e.g. more than four times a day and/or more than 50 grams (approx. 12 teaspoons) per day (18)
. They also recommend awareness of not only sugars added to food but also those naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
Are sweeteners better for me than sugar?
Sugars and sweeteners are both safe – the choice depends on your taste preference and the type of product. Sweeteners can offer you an alternative choice but can’t replicate all of the other important functions that sugar provide such as texture, preservation etc. Instead sugar alternatives can only replace the sweetness of sugars and the majority has zero calories.
How many calories are in a teaspoon of sugar?
There are 16 calories in a level teaspoon (4g) of sugar
What is the energy value of sugar?
Sugar has four calories per gram compared to protein (four calories), fat (nine calories) and alcohol (seven calories).
What’s the difference between white and brown sugar?
White and brown sugars are both made from sugar cane or sugar beet. Brown sugar is essentially white sugar combined with molasses, which provides the dark colour, characteristic flavour and texture. The darker brown the sugar, the higher the amount of molasses. Both have the same amount of calories at 4 calories per gram.
Is sugar addictive?
Current scientific evidence does not support the idea that sugar (or any other foodstuff) can be addictive (21)
. Certain food and drinks of course can be pleasurable to consume, but it is important not to confuse this with clinical addiction.
Is sugar toxic?
Scientific studies have not found an adverse or “toxic” effect when sugars are consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet (58)
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently undertaking a scientific assessment to attempt to set a tolerable upper intake level for total/added sugar/free sugars if the available data allow it (22)
. EFSA aims to have a draft ready for public consultation in late 2020, with a view to finalizing the work in 2021.
Are fruit juices full of sugar?
Fruit juices provide the same quantity and type of sugars as you would find in the equivalent amount of the whole fruit from which they are prepared.
Why does wine have sugar?
Sugars occur naturally in the grapes and are an important part of the fermentation process. The sugars get converted by yeast to make alcohol. Without sugar you unfortunately wouldn’t have wine!
Why is sugar used in savoury snacks?
Sugar performs a variety of functions including structure, texture and flavour. It is also an important preservative.
Why does bread contain sugar?
The flour used to make bread contains small amounts of sugars, such as glucose and maltose. These sugars can also be produced naturally as part of the baking process. Sugars can also be added to bread recipes to provide colour and flavour. The levels of sugars in bread are typically less than 5g/100g which you can check on the food label.
Why is so much sugar in low fat products?
Sugars are present naturally in some low-fat products such as yoghurts. When fat is removed, these sugars then represent a higher percentage of the total product weight. You should always read the nutritional or food label on a food or drink product as low-fat doesn’t always mean lower calorie.
Why are there not more sugar-free food and drink alternatives?
We actually have more choice than ever before when it comes to the food and drink available for us to buy. Today low-calorie and no calorie soft drinks make up 58% of those available for you to buy (59)
Is there any difference between the sugars consumed in drinks or those consumed in food?
The body breaks down each type of sugar in exactly the same way, irrespective of where it comes from. For example, sucrose in an apple is broken down in exactly the same as the sucrose in your sugar bowl. However, the rate of which the sucrose is absorbed can vary depending on if the source is a solid or liquid food, for example in an apple or apple juice.
Are the sugars in fruit juice better for me than other drinks?
No. The body breaks down each type of sugar in exactly the same way, irrespective of where it comes from.
No single food or drink contains all the essential nutrients your body needs, which is why variety is key. A healthy balanced diet means eating a wide range of foods from each of the five main food groups based on the UK Government’s ‘Eatwell Plate’ (40)
Typically fruit juices will contain the same vitamins and minerals found in the fruit form from which they are prepared.
Is it better to have a smoothie or fruit juice rather than a fizzy drink, even if the amount of sugars and calories are the same?
No single food or drink contains all the essential nutrients or calories your body needs, which is why variety is key. A healthy balanced diet means eating a wide range of foods from each of the five main food groups based on the UK Government’s ‘Eatwell Plate’ (40)
. As outlined by the Eatwell Plate, foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar can be enjoyed in moderation.
that recent scientific evidence contained within a report published by the UK Government’s expert nutrition group (SACN), suggest a risk is associated with a higher intake of sugars-sweetened beverages and incidence of Type 2 diabetes (13)