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Eat Well

Free Sugars and How to Avoid Them


October 7, 2020

The negative impact of free sugars on our teeth and general health has been well-publicised for some time now. However, there also appears to be a great deal of confusion about what free sugars are and how they differ to natural sugars. So we've put together this guide to explain all.

What are free sugars?

"Free sugars" are any sugars added to food or drink. The sugar found in honey, syrup and fruit juice is also classed as free sugar. They're called 'free' because they're not inside the food's cells. The sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk ("natural sugars") aren't classed as free because they come with extra nutrients, such as fibre.But when fruit becomes fruit juice, the sugars come out of their cells, are separated from the fibre, and become free sugars. The separation from the fibre is significant as it makes it easier to eat lots of sugar without realising. As the British Heart Foundation explains, "you wouldn't eat four oranges in a row but you might drink their juice in one glass of orange juice without feeling full."

How much free sugar should I be having?

Guidelines state that we should get no more than 5% of our calories from free sugars. However, children in the UK consume an estimated 12-16% of their daily calorie intake from free sugars. Adults and children aged over 11 should eat no more than around 30g of free sugars a day. For children the figures are significantly lower. To put that in perspective, a regular can of Coca-Cola contains 35g of free sugar.  

free sugars

What are the dangers of eating too much free sugar?

Consuming high amounts of free sugar can lead to health issues. This is because sugar is a major contributor to over-consumption of calories, leading to weight gain. Moreover, high amounts of sugar, particularly between meals and before bed time, is one of the main causes of tooth decay. In England tooth decay is one of the most common reasons for children to be hospitalised with 46,520 admissions to hospital 2013-2014. Foods high in sugar have a lower nutritional content with fewer vitamins and minerals. Children eating more of these foods have an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies. This can lead to the prevention of optimal growth and development.  

How do I reduce my consumption of free sugars?  

  1. Swap fizzy drinks and sugary squash for water, sugar-free or no added sugar drinks.
  2. Limit fruit juice to a maximum of 150 ml per day.
  3. Instead of flavoured milk or yoghurts, choose plain dairy products and add fresh fruit. Try our healthy breakfast ideas by clicking HERE.
  4. Check nutrition labels looking for food products 5g of sugar or less, or low sugar versions.  
  5. Choose unsweetened wholegrain breakfast cereals. Try adding some fruit for sweetness such as strawberries or banana, which will also count towards your 5-a-day.
  6. Be creative and swap your kids' favourite sugary snacks for fruit kebabs.
  7. Pack healthy snacks ahead of time. If you are out and about it can be tempting buy a snack from the sweet aisle. But if you plan ahead it’s possible to avoid this scenario.
  8. Use the Change4life food scanner app. This shows how many sugar cubes are in food products, and visit the change4life website to find out more about reducing sugar intake.

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