You've cut back on booze, you sip matcha green tea and you haven't looked at a rasher of bacon for months, but tell the truth: do you have any idea how much sugar you consume? Despite years of dire warnings and the launch of a sugar "tax" on soft drinks last year, we're still eating far more than the recommended level, and confusion is rife: a 2017 study found that Britons eat up to 50 per cent more sugar than they think.
It's unsurprising, given the mixed messages we continue to receive. Wholesome-looking foods, from cereals to children's snacks, are sold as having no "refined" or "added" sugar, yet have very high overall sugar levels from fruit or sugar alternatives such as honey. This month, Action on Sugar warned that consumers are being misled over the supposed benefits of honeys and syrups which, despite their "natural" image, are no healthier than table sugar.
And while fruit juice can count towards your five a day, a US study says a daily glass may be worse for health than drinking cola.
"People do get confused about where sugar comes from and whether some are better than others," says Bridget Benelam, a scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. "They either tend to think that 'natural' sugars, like honey, are fine, or they think you shouldn't have any sugar, not even fruit. As always in nutrition, the truth is shades of grey."
To recap, the big concern is over "free sugars" - those added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, or ourselves. It's free sugars that are associated with tooth decay and excess calorie consumption, ergo weight gain and all its related health woes. There is less concern over naturally occurring sugars, found naturally in fruit, vegetables and milk, as these don't seem to have the same effects on health and these foods contain other important nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. (However, labels on foods don't clarify where their sugars have come from.)
Public Health England recommends that adults and children aged 11 or over consume no more than 30g of free sugars, or 7 sugar cubes, per day. The average British adult gets through 57g a day and the average teenager 67.1g. The main culprits are table sugar, sweets, chocolate and preserves, with soft drinks the second-biggest source in our diets, followed by alcohol, then buns and cakes, then fruit juice.
A truly sugar-free diet is virtually impossible. If you're trying to take a healthy approach to sugar, experts advise looking at the foods you eat and taking a common-sense approach.
"I don't believe in demonising any one nutrient," says Helen Bond, a dietitian and spokesman for the British Dietetic Association. "Look at the broader picture: a yoghurt might have sugar, but that may come from fruit. Many cereals contain added sugar but they're going to provide fibre and wholegrains too."
She says traffic light labels can be useful - as can looking for anything with sugar among the first two items on its ingredients list.
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Despite various claims about honey containing amino acids, vitamins and minerals, it's still a free sugar, with the same effects on the body as table sugar, and any additional nutritional benefits remain unproven. "It's 'natural', but then you could say sugar is natural, too, as it comes from sugar cane or beet," says Helen Bond. It contains three calories per gram, comparable to table sugar's four calories.
Extracted from a type of cactus, this has become a fashionable product to add to foods and drinks, and to use in baking. Again, though, it's essentially just sugar, containing about three calories per gram. In fact, liquid sugars like honey, agave syrup and maple syrup can end up giving a double dose of calories, says Bond, because they're poured or squirted into drinks and foods, meaning the quantity is harder to measure.
Manufacturers frequently use fruit juice and puree as a way of sweetening products, such as children's snacks, while claiming they contain "no added sugar". But some say fruit juices and smoothies are so sugary that they should not count as one of your five a day, and should qualify for the soft drinks sugar levy brought in by the Government last year.
When a fruit is juiced, the natural sugars are released from their cells, meaning the fibre is lost and they become the more harmful "free" sugars.
"The sugar content is the same, so they do have the same effect on calorie intake as cola," says Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University. "The trouble is that there is currently no way to take sugar out of fruit juices. George Osborne chose soft drinks for the sugar tax because he knew reformulation was feasible."
Bridget Benelam says: "Fruit juice is considered free sugar, but the data we have shows we're not consuming gallons and gallons of it. So it does still count towards your five a day, but it should be no more than a 150ml glass."
Regularly spotted on the ingredients lists of wholesome-looking granolas and cereals, date paste or syrup again counts as a free sugar, with roughly the same number of calories as table sugar, meaning consumption should be limited. "There may be small amounts of nutrients in things like date syrups and molasses, but we shouldn't be looking to get our vitamins and minerals from such sugary foods anyway," says Benelam.
Sold as an alternative to table sugar, this is made from the sap of the coconut palm, and, it's often claimed, is not as "processed" and therefore better for you. But metabolically, there's no difference between this and regular sugar, apart from the price tag. "It's said to have small amounts of minerals but eating all that sugar will far outweigh any possible benefits," says dietitian Helen Bond.
Extracted from the leaves of the Paraguayan stevia plant, this zero-calorie, natural sugar substitute has been seized upon by the food and beverages industry - it's been added to Sprite for several years, lowering the drink's sugar content by 30 per cent. Other drinks makers have used sweeteners such as aspartame - found in Coke Zero Sugar.
Research published last week in Beverage Daily found that sales of such sugar-free drinks have risen, and sales of full-sugar beverages have fallen since the introduction of the sugar tax last year. Though the sugar tax currently only applies to soft drinks, confectionery manufacturers are also developing new, healthier recipes - with Cadbury set to launch a Dairy Milk bar with 30 per cent less sugar this year, reportedly using extra fibre in place of the sugar rather than relying on artificial sweeteners.
Some, however, believe the use of sweeteners - even if they are low- calorie - serves to normalise a taste for sugary things. "People now expect a heightened sweet taste in what they eat and drink - we've forgotten the natural sweetness in foods," says Helen Bond. "We need to wean the nation off its sweet palate."
The Daily Telegraph UK