The Nutracheck nutrient guide to: sugar

Amy Wood - Nutritionist | 16 Feb, 2023

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We place a lot of emphasis on the number of calories in our diets as this is central to our weight loss success, however we mustn't overlook the importance of the nutrients we need too. After all, the food on our plates is made up of different nutrients in varying proportions – calories are just the total energy they all provide.

To help you understand a little more about the nutrients in your food and why they're so important, we're putting together the ultimate series of guides to bust the myths and equip you with all the nutritional 'know-how' you need to make informed choices about your diet and your health. We’ve covered carbohydrates, protein and fibre so far – next up is...sugar!

The basics

Different types of sugar are processed slightly differently by our bodies. Here are three of the main types we find in food.

  • Glucose is the type of sugar our bodies like to use for energy. When we talk about 'blood sugar', we actually mean the level of glucose in the blood. After we eat a food high in free sugar, such as cakes, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages, our blood glucose levels rise quickly. This stimulates our pancreas to release insulin, the hormone responsible for putting glucose into storage as glycogen (short-term stores) or deposited in fat tissue (long-term stores).
  • Fructose, sometimes known as 'fruit sugar', behaves a little differently. Unlike glucose, fructose doesn’t stimulate a notable insulin response, and doesn’t impact blood sugar levels in the way that glucose does. Instead, fructose is almost entirely processed by the liver. This is why fructose may be tolerated better by diabetics.
  • Sucrose is the typical white stuff you think of when you picture sugar. It’s a mixture of both glucose and fructose. One molecule of sucrose is simply a glucose and a fructose stuck together. The two molecules are split apart during digestion, and the sugars are processed as glucose and fructose respectively.
Sugar types

What can happen if we eat too much sugar?

While our bodies do use glucose for energy, too much of it isn't a good thing. Often, sugary foods, particularly those high in free sugars, don't provide additional nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. Therefore, excess sugar is often referred to as 'empty calories' – it doesn't provide any nutrition apart from energy. We know excess energy is stored as fat, so eating too much sugar has been linked with obesity, which is associated with a number of health conditions.

Too much sugar can also increase the risk of teeth problems. Sugar on the teeth breaks down our enamel (the strong protective layer on the outside of our teeth), ultimately leading to painful problems such as decay and cavities.

As fructose doesn’t greatly impact our blood sugar and insulin levels, we used to think fructose was good for us. However we now know that too much fructose can cause problems of its own. Because fructose is processed and turned into fatty acids by the liver, excessive consumption of fructose can increase the level of fat stored in the liver. Over time, this may progress to a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to permanent liver damage, and potential heart complications in those with diabetes.

Now this certainly doesn't mean we should cut sugar out of our diets, least of all fruit, which provides us with lots of nutrients. It just means we should be mindful of keeping our consumption at healthy levels in the long term.

Fruit vs free sugar

What's a healthy daily sugar intake?

For the average person on a 2000-calorie diet, the reference nutrient intake for total sugar is up to 90g, which equates to 18% of total energy intake. Applying this to a 1400-calorie diet, the recommended daily intake would be up to 63g.

However, it's really important to look at where this sugar is coming from in our diets.

  • We can find sugar naturally in lots of foods, including fruit, vegetables and no-added-sugar dairy products. This type of sugar isn't the sort we should be worrying about too much, as these whole foods provide us with lots of other important nutrients, like the fibre and vitamins we get from fruit and veggies, and the protein and calcium found in dairy products.
  • There's also a category of sugars called 'free sugars'. This refers to the classic white stuff you stir into your tea, and includes any sugar added to food and drink, as well as the sugars naturally found in honey, syrups, fruit juices and smoothies. Free sugar is the kind associated with dental problems and weight gain. In the UK, we're eating too much free sugar, so the recommendation is that no more than 5% of our calories come from free sugars, which is the equivalent to about 3.5 teaspoons of sugar for a 1400-calorie diet, or 5 teaspoons for a 2000-calorie diet.

How can I keep my free sugar intake at a healthy level?

  • Swap full-sugar fizzy drinks for 'diet' and 'zero' versions that don't contain sugar.
  • While low-fat yoghurt can be a great alternative to full fat when you're in a calorie deficit, they tend to be loaded with added sugar to make up for the lack of fat. Choose low-fat or fat-free yoghurts with no added sugar to avoid this, and sweeten with fruit if needed.
  • While you might not think of squash or cordial as a sugary option, they can be high in added sugar. Opt for versions without added sugar instead.
  • Consider whether you need to add sugar to your tea, coffee or cereal. If you regularly do this, try gradually cutting down on the amount you put in to help your tastebuds adjust, or try using sweeteners instead.
  • Honey, maple syrup and agave nectar might seem like healthy alternatives to sugar, but they're all just sugar in different forms! Use these sparingly as you would any other sugar.
  • Despite the 'healthy' marketing, sports drinks and protein supplements can be high in added sugar. There are plenty of low-sugar options out there – it's all about reading the label.
  • Choose lower-sugar condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce over full-sugar versions.
  • Some fruits contain more sugar than others. While incorporating lots of different fruits is an important part of a balanced diet, enjoy smaller portions of particularly high-sugar fruits, such as bananas, apples, grapes, mangoes, pineapples and kiwis. Fruits lower in sugar include strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, avocado, lemons, limes, satsumas, grapefruits, and figs.
  • Dried fruit can be very high in sugar, and sometimes even has extra sugar added, so only enjoy these in moderation. Remember, they can only count for a maximum of one of your 5-a-day anyway!
  • The best way to know how much sugar is going into your food is by cooking it yourself. Making recipes from scratch gives you full control of the sugar in your meals, and avoids the hefty added sugar toll of many premade cooking sauces and ready meals.

In the Nutracheck app, we set your total sugar target to a maximum of 18% of your calories. This is for total sugar, incorporating both fruit & veg sugars and free sugars, as food labels don’t currently distinguish between them. If you're interested in trying to reduce the sugar in your diet, we also have a pre-set nutrient goal that automatically sets you a reduced sugar target in line with your calorie target.

The 'Less Sugar' nutrient goal keeps your overall carb target at the normal level of 50%, but brings your sugar allowance down from 18% to 12% of your dietary energy. This promotes a diet lower in free sugars while still maintaining a normal carb intake made up of fibres and starches.

To set yourself the Less Sugar nutrient goal in the Nutracheck app, tap the blue menu button next to the search bar in your diary, then select 'Nutrient Goals'. Choose the 'Less Sugar' goal from the list. Save your changes by tapping 'Set this goal'.

On the Nutracheck website, click 'Settings' from the menu at the top of your Diary page, then 'Set a nutrient goal'. Click the 'Less Sugar' goal from the selection, then click 'Apply Changes' to save your new settings.

Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focused approach to taking control of their health.

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