Sugar in focus

How much sugar is OK to include in our diet?
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  • Updated:13 Sep 2005

01 .Introduction


What is sugar?

  • Most of us probably think of cane sugar (sucrose) when someone says ‘sugar’. We can buy white, brown, raw and caster sugar, but all are essentially sucrose.
  • There are also other types of sugar in the foods we eat. The main sugar in fruit is fructose; in milk, lactose; and other sugars in food include glucose and maltose.
  • All have the same amount of kilojoules and energy.
  • All these types of sugar may be listed separately in the ingredient list of a food, but if you look at the nutrient panel the total amount will be given under ‘sugars’.
  • Honey is a solution of sugars and it’s nutritionally similar to other sugars.

Did you know?

  • Sugar isn’t linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer or hyperactivity.
  • However, it can play a role in tooth decay, and adds energy (kilojoules/calories) without any other nutrition. Heavy consumers of sugar, who may eat sugary foods instead of more nutritious ones, could end up missing out on some of the nutrients they need for a healthy diet.
  • There’s a vigorous debate about the possible role of sugar-sweetened drinks in obesity, particularly in kids.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2005 but is still a useful guide today.


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Tooth decay

Sugar is one of several things that can contribute to tooth decay (dental caries). Although sugar (sucrose) is at the top of the list for its decay potential, it’s by no means the only suspect. How you eat it and how well you care for your teeth are also important parts of the equation.

All sugars can be used as food by bacteria in the plaque on your teeth. The bacteria produce acids that can eat into tooth enamel, so all types of sugar can be a problem under the right conditions, as can starches and starchy foods. How much of a problem depends on how often you eat them through the day and how long they stay in your mouth.

Frequent snacking on sugary or starchy foods, and in particular ones that hang around in your mouth, like sticky, clingy biscuits, cakes and sweets, or foods you sip or suck for some time, can easily result in problems your dentist won’t be happy about. Eating these foods as part of a meal is better than having them between meals.

Good oral hygiene is also a critical factor — regular teeth cleaning with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing and check-ups are essential to healthy teeth, no matter how much sugar you do or don’t eat.


The physiology of getting fat is pretty straightforward. Despite what fad diets might have you believe, if you eat more energy (kilojoules/calories) than you use, the extra is stored as fat and you’ll become fatter over time. We all know this, we’d just like a simple eating ‘trick’ or easy ‘diet’ to make it otherwise. And it doesn’t matter where those extra kilojoules come from — fat, protein or carbohydrates (including sugar) — eat more than you need and you’ll get fatter.

But a healthy diet isn’t just eating the right amount of energy for your needs, it’s also about getting all the vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals you need to be healthy. The one thing that refined sugar does is to add energy (kilojoules/calories) without adding any other nutrition.

This can make it difficult for heavy consumers of sugar, who may eat sugary products instead of more nutritious foods and end up missing out on what they need for a healthy diet. Many sugary foods, such as pastries, biscuits, cakes, confectionery and soft drinks, are low in nutrition but high in kilojoules.

Of course, a little sugar can also make more nutritious foods more likely to be eaten: porridge with brown sugar or wholemeal toast with jam, for example. That’s why, on balance, we’re advised to eat only a moderate amount of sugars and foods containing added sugars. But just how much sugar is that?

Blood sugar and GI

Eating sugary foods used to be blamed for sending people’s blood sugar levels soaring and then plunging — surges which some nutritionists think could have long-term effects on health.

But while some foods can send blood sugar levels bouncing, it seems the answer to which foods do this isn’t as simple as just those with the most sugar.

The glycaemic index (GI) of foods is a way of measuring how they affect levels of sugar in the blood, giving each food a comparative score out of 100. It compares the effect of eating an amount of each food that contains 50 grams of carbohydrate with eating the same amount of pure glucose (GI = 100).

Foods with a low GI (55 or less) make blood glucose levels rise and fall more gently, while high-GI foods (70 or more) are broken down more quickly and cause blood sugars to surge and crash. Perhaps surprisingly, table sugar scores a moderate 61.

Syndrome X

It sounds like a pilot for a sci-fi series, but in fact it’s a name coined to describe a cluster of abnormalities associated with insulin resistance, high blood pressure, obesity (centred around the stomach), low HDL-cholesterol (that’s the good kind) and high blood triglycerides — all of which increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

A link has been suggested between syndrome X and large quantities of fructose — a type of sugar used much more extensively in processed foods in the US than here, but which also makes up one half of a molecule of ordinary sugar (sucrose). The science is far from clear. There are animal studies that support the idea, but a very limited number of human studies. Some experts say there’s not enough fructose in Australian diets to have any noticeable effect, but it’s early days and more research is needed. There’s no suggestion that eating fruit (which provides fructose in association with dietary fibre) is a risk.


The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the government’s expert body that developed our Australian dietary guidelines, says there’s no evidence that, for most people, getting up to 15–20% of energy from sugars is a problem in terms of having a healthy diet.

A joint World Health Organization (WHO)/Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expert committee proposed a maximum of 10% added sugars. However, this resulted in considerable scientific debate and hasn’t been specifically included in WHO’s recently released global strategy on diet, physical activity and health.

So how much does the NHMRC’s 15–20% translate to?

  • For an average man (aged between 30 and 60, weighing about 80 kg) it’s 24 to 32 teaspoons a day
  • For an average women (also between 30 and 60, but weighing about 65 kg), it’s about 19 to 25 teaspoons a day.
  • On average, Australians eat about the 20% level, but averages mask the high intakes of some people and the lower intakes of others.
  • In general, about 80% of the sugars we eat are already in the foods we buy, with soft drinks, juices, fruit-based drinks and sports drinks being major sources of sugars in our diets. Items like confectionery and cakes are significant sources too. And most of these foods are low in nutrition as well.

You can work out the number of teaspoons in foods by dividing the grams of sugars given on the label by four (4 g is the amount of sugar in a level standard teaspoon).

You don’t need to cut out sugar completely, just keep it to a sensible level. It makes sense to limit sugary foods that don’t provide much in the way of nutritional value, such as cakes, pastries, biscuits, confectionery, soft drinks and other sugary drinks, and eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals instead.

04.The soft drink debate


Australians, like people in many countries around the world, are getting fatter. And among other things we’re also increasingly drinking sugar-sweetened soft drinks. There’s a growing concern that there could be a link between the two.

The possible effect of excessive consumption of sugary drinks by children is especially of concern. The debate started in 2001 with a US study that found the more soft drink kids in the study drank, the greater their chance was of becoming overweight.

Earlier this year a group of experts in New Zealand prepared a report that looked at the published evidence to date on sugary drinks and obesity in children. It concluded that there’s evidence that sugary drinks play a role in promoting weight gain in kids. And Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), our national food regulator, recently reported its view that the increased consumption of sweetened drinks, such as soft drinks, is now recognised as an important, independent risk factor for the development of obesity in school-aged children.

However, not everyone agrees the evidence overall supports a link. The Australian Food and Grocery Council says the evidence is equivocal — some studies suggest a link, others don’t. It also considers it may be relevant that many studies have been conducted in the US, where drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, while Australia uses sucrose.

No doubt debate will continue at least until we have well-designed Australian studies looking at the situation here. In the meantime, it’s certainly true that sugary soft drinks aren’t essential to our diets and supply plenty of kilojoules while contributing little that’s useful nutritionally.

‘Added Sugar’ labels

Currently food labels tell you the total amount of sugars in a product. We’d like to see consumers armed with more information: we’d like manufacturers to clearly show the amount of added sugars separately, so you know how much of the sugar comes from ingredients like dried fruit or milk that bring with them vitamins and minerals, and how much is simply refined sugars.