There are many good reasons to limit our sugar intake. Too much sugar is linked to obesity, heart disease and poor nutrition. Sugar occurs naturally in many foods, but it's also added to most processed foods and can be hard to detect.

The sugar we add to our coffee or sprinkle on our breakfast cereal makes up only a small part of our intake. About 80% of the sugars we eat are in processed foods – soft drinks, juices, fruit drinks, confectionery, cakes and sports drinks are the main culprits. Most of these foods are low in nutrients as well, so we could be missing out on vitamins and minerals.

How much sugar is okay?

  • Men aged 19-70, weighing 76kg, should have a maximum of 136g (or 34 teaspoons) of sugar a day.

  • Women aged 19-70, weighing 61kg, should have a maximum of 105g (or about 26 teaspoons) of sugar a day.

Artificial sweeteners and cancer

Controversy has surrounded the use of the major artificial sweeteners approved for use in Australia (listed in the table), largely because most have been linked with various forms of cancer, genetic abnormalities and other chronic diseases.

  • Aspartame has been found to cause lymphomas and leukaemia in rats.
  • Cyclamate has been shown to have adverse effects on the reproductive tract of male rats.
  • Saccharin fed to rats was associated with higher rates of bladder cancer.

Before you panic, note that artificial sweeteners in studies are administered to animals in massive amounts – far greater than humans could possibly consume in foods and drinks. The World Cancer Research Fund found the evidence does not suggest that artificial sweeteners have a detectable effect on the risk of any cancer. However, anti-sweetener campaigners argue more studies are needed before we can be confident of their safety.

Artificial sweeteners are also accused of increasing appetite and energy intake, and causing people to gain weight. Several studies in the 1980s and 90s showed artificial sweeteners in products that provide little or no energy were associated with heightened hunger. More recent reviews have shown a link between artificial sweetener intake and weight gain, but more high quality clinical trials are needed to establish or refute causality.

Sweeteners in Australia

Artificial sweetener
(additive number)
Sweetness
(relative to
sucrose = 1)
Product examples
Top 5 sources for
each sweetener
(% contribution to intake)
Acesulphame-K (950) 200 Bundaberg Diet Ginger Beer, Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, Red Bull Sugarfree, Saxbys Diet Ginger Beer, Sprite Zero, V Sugar Free, Cottee's No Added Sugar Cordial, Ribena Light, Dairy Farmers Thick & Creamy Light, Nestlé Diet yoghurt, Yoplait Forme yoghurt. Also found in tabletop sweeteners CSR Smart Sticks, Equal Spoon for Spoon, Hermesetas Gold, Hermesetas Granulated, Sugarless. Carbonated soft drinks (52%), flavoured yoghurts/mousses (22%), cordials/fruit drinks (9%), confectionary (7%), flavoured milks (5%).
Aspartame (951) 180 Bundaberg Diet Ginger Beer, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi Max, Sprite Zero, Nestlé Diet yoghurt, Yoplait Forme yoghurt. Also found in tabletop sweeteners Be Light (Aldi), Equal, Equal Spoon for Spoon, Hermesetas Gold, Hermesetas Granulated, Sugarless. Carbonated soft drinks (66%), tabletop sweeteners (9%), sports, energy and weight management products (7%), flavoured yoghurts/mousses (7%), confectionary (4%).
Cyclamate (952) 30 Cottee's No Added Sugar Cordial, Saxbys Diet Ginger Beer, Aeroplane Jelly Lite, Weight Watchers fruit in jelly, Sucaryl (tabletop sweetener). Cordials/fruit drinks (51%), carbonated soft drinks (34%), tabletop sweeteners (4%), jellies/milk-based puddings (4%), other desserts/breakfasts (4%).
Saccharin (954) 300 Saxbys Diet Ginger Beer, Aeroplane Jelly Lite, Weight Watchers fruit in jelly. Also found in tabletop sweeteners Hermesetas, Sugarine, Sugarella, Sugarless Liquid and found in Sucaryl. Tabletop sweeteners (49%), cordials/fruit drinks (31%), carbonated soft drinks (16%), other desserts/breakfasts (3%), jellies/milk-based puddings (2%).
Sucralose (955) 600 Bundaberg Diet Ginger Beer, Dairy Farmers Thick & Creamy Light, Cottee's No Added Sugar Cordial, Ribena Light, Red Bull Sugar Free, V Sugar Free, Protein Revival milk drink, Atkins Endulge and Advantage bars, and as tabletop sweetener Splenda. Carbonated soft drinks (59%), flavoured yoghurts/mousses (13%), cordials/fruit drinks (9%), tabletop sweeteners (5%), sports, energy and weight management products (5%).

Are some sugars healthier than others?

Stevia is a 'natural' sweetener, which is extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It appears as a sweetener under brand names PureVia, Hermesetas Stevia Sweet, and in CSR Smart. It has only 4kJ compared to sugar's 80kJ per teaspoon and no effect on blood sugar levels.

The sugar industry has been developing alternatives for consumers looking for healthier options and there are now a variety of new products on supermarket shelves.

  • CSR LoGICane is essentially raw sugar that has had molasses extract sprayed onto it, resulting in a product with half the GI of sucrose. Low-GI foods are recommended for people with diabetes, and there's some evidence that a low-GI diet may assist with weight loss. But LoGICane still has the equivalent kJ amount of regular sugar.
  • CSR Smart is a blend of cane sugar with intense sweetener stevia. It's twice as sweet as sugar so you can use half as much, which can be useful for people watching their energy intake.
  • CSR Organic is made from ACO-certified cane sugar. It might have been produced without artificial chemicals, but it has the same kJ as regular sugar.

Sickly sweet: the health risks of too much sugar

Australians are consuming more sugar than they need for a healthy diet, according to recent studies. Too much sugar not only adds empty kilojoules to the diet but may also increase our risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). High intake of added sugars – those we sprinkle in our coffee or on our cereal, and those in processed foods such as confectionery and tomato sauce – is associated with increased risks of high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

If the thought of less sweetness in your diet is unpalatable, then artificial sweeteners or natural substitutes like stevia may be an alternative. However, artificial sweeteners are usually present in heavily processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, confectionery and soft drinks that don't provide much nutritional value, so should not be consumed in large amounts anyway.

Fructose

Fructose has received bad press of late, with some studies suggesting it contributes to growing levels of obesity. This is based on the way it's metabolised – fructose stimulates insulin secretion less than glucose and glucose-containing carbohydrates. The theory goes that less insulin – and possibly lower resulting leptin levels – might inhibit appetite less than other carbohydrates, leading to increased energy intake. However, there's no convincing evidence that dietary fructose increases energy intake.

That said, large amounts of fructose in the diet are known to increase the triglycerides released into the bloodstream following a meal, which is a risk factor for heart disease. This is more of an issue in the US, where fructose in the form of high fructose corn syrup is commonly used as a sugar substitute in processed foods due to its relative cheapness. The fructose naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables provides only a modest amount of dietary fructose and is not of concern.

Do soft drinks cause obesity?

Rising rates of obesity, accompanied by the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, has resulted in a growing concern that the two issues are connected. The standard explanation for the link is that energy-containing liquids are less satiating than solid foods – meaning the body doesn't register liquid calories. However, more studies are needed to conclusively determine the mechanisms behind the relationship between soft drink consumption and body weight.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), our national food regulator, reported the increased consumption of sweetened drinks, such as soft drinks, is a risk factor in children's obesity. Whether from soft drinks or other sources, excessive consumption of sugars has been linked not only with obesity, but with other health problems such as dental caries and type-2 diabetes, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients such as calcium, so it's only sensible to limit how much sugar we're consuming.

Ways to cut back on sugar

Check the labels

Nutrition information panels often only list total sugar, so it's hard to distinguish between added and naturally occurring ones. But you can get a sense of the amount of added sugars in a product by checking the ingredients list.

Common guises for added sugars include fructose (or fruit juice concentrate), glucose, corn sugar, dextrose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses and sucrose (or brown sugar, cane sugar, granulated sugar, icing sugar and sugar). And remember that the sugar industry's 'better for you' sugars are still sugar.

Reduce added sugar gradually

Don't cut out sugar from your diet all at once. Gradually reduce the amount you add to tea, coffee or cereal and start choosing less sugary foods. Over time your tastebuds can be trained to appreciate less sugar, but studies show this adjustment typically takes eight to 12 weeks.

Watch what you drink

Sugary soft drinks, juices, fruit-based drinks and sports drinks are major sources of sugars in our diets. Water is the best beverage.

Substitute with spices

Add sweetness and flavour to food with "warm" spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Muffins and cakes can usually be made with at least 25% less sugar, and the sugar in stewed fruit and pie fillings can be cut in half.

Satisfy your sweet tooth with healthy snacks

Consider fruit, low-sugar cereal, or plain yoghurt with fruit. The best way to reduce your sugar intake is to limit processed foods that don't provide much nutritional value, and eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain products that are rich in nutrients as well as kilojoules.