Sugar and sugar cravings
Our love of sugar has never been higher – since 1960 consumption has tripled.
Too much sugar can lead to obesity and consequently heart disease and diabetes.
We’re talking about free sugar here – that’s the sugar added to foods by the manufacturer, a cook or us! Plus the sugar in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
Naturally occurring sugars found in fresh whole fruits, vegetables and dairy are OK.
Soft drinks, energy drinks, cordial, fruit juice are the most significant sources of free sugars (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
How much sugar is too much?
The World Health Organization recommends reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of your total energy intake (for both adults and children). Australians consume a whopping 14 teaspoons of sugar per day!
How to cut down on sugar?
- Read labels – sugar hides!
- Low fat foods often have high sugar
- Don’t go cold turkey – reduce the amount gradually
- Cut down on soft drinks, fruit juice, processed and packaged foods
- Artificial sweeteners may maintain your sweet tooth so cut them out
- Try 70% cacao dark chocolate to satisfy a craving
- Or a few fresh berries or an orange
- Eat more high protein foods
- Fill up on fibre
- Exercise to work off those sugar cravings!
What is sugar?
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, along with starches and fibre. Sugars are sweet-tasting short-chain carbohydrates.
Sugars occur naturally in foods – lactose occurs in milk, fructose in fruit and honey, galactose in dairy products such as milk, maltose in barley, and glucose in fruits and vegetables. These are known as ‘naturally occurring sugars’.
Sugars are also added to foods by the food industry and when we’re cooking. These are known as ‘added sugars’ – they may take the form of sugars or syrups. The World Health Organization uses the term ‘free sugars’, which refers to all sugars added by the food industry, the cook or person eating the food, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
What’s the difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugar?
At a molecular level, there really isn’t any difference between a sugar that occurs naturally in a food or one that has been added in manufacturing. Your body won’t know the difference. However, added sugars don’t usually come along with any nutritional benefit, unlike naturally occurring sugars. Naturally occurring sugars – as well as providing energy – occur alongside useful nutritional components such as fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Added sugars also provide the kilojoules, but without any nutritional benefit.
In Australia, we list only the total sugar amount on our nutritional food labels, but in the US, added sugars are listed separately from total sugar on food labels.
Added sugars can go under many disguises, but some names to look out for are agave nectar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, maple syrup, sucrose, brown sugar, caster sugar, raw sugar, and maltose.
Australian guidelines recommend that if total sugar exceeds 15 g per 100g on the nutrition information panel of a food, that you should look at the ingredients list to see whether any added sugar is high on the list. Ingredients are listed in order of weight on the label, with the greatest weight ingredient listed first. So if you find an added sugar high on the list, you can bet that the food contains a large amount of added sugar.
Added sugars are found in high quantities in foods such as soft drinks, cordials, energy drinks, cakes, sweets, biscuits, sweetened yoghurts, tomato ketchup, chutneys, and some breakfast cereals.
What are the health dangers of eating too much sugar?
Eating too much sugar displaces more healthy foods from our diets – and contributes to weight gain due to its energy-dense nature. Like other carbohydrates, sugar contains 17 kilojoules per gram. That means that a teaspoon of white sugar (4 g) contains 68 kilojoules.
The effect of sugar on our teeth can’t be underestimated. Dental decay and poor oral health also have a wider effect on your overall health.
Too much added sugar is also credited with increasing the risk of heart disease. Aside from its effect via your weight, added sugar has been shown to increase blood pressure and may adversely affect lipid levels such as cholesterol, and also increase inflammation in the body.
Your liver can also be affected by high amounts of sugar. A high intake of added sugars has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – a disease where fat builds up in the liver, which may lead to inflammation and ultimately scarring of the liver.
Even your skin can’t escape the effects of too much sugar. Sugar attaches to proteins in the body, creating AGEs (advanced glycation end-products) – these products affect the collagen and elastin fibres that support healthy skin. The resulting loss of elasticity, known as ‘sugar sag’, promotes wrinkles and sagging.
Glucose is the main source of energy for the brain, but too much is not necessarily a good thing. High sugar foods can cause a craving for more. Triggered by the reward response, the brain releases dopamine in response to sugar. This reward system is the same system that is activated in addiction to cocaine and amphetamines. And so it may lead to addiction and compulsive overeating.
Can eating too much sugar give you diabetes?
Too much sugar does not directly cause type 2 diabetes. However, consuming too much added sugar can lead to weight gain and obesity, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Researchers have also found that the consumption of sugary soft drinks can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Do we need sugar?
Our bodies use carbohydrates as their main source of energy. Carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars by digestion and these fuel the activities of your body.
We can get enough energy from healthy carbohydrate-containing foods, such as vegetables, milk and fruits, without needing added sugars. So there is no nutritional need to consume added sugars. You won’t find added sugars on any of the healthy plate diagrams or as a requirement in any dietary guidelines.
How much sugar is healthy?
Australia does not have specific guidelines for how much sugar is acceptable in a healthy diet. The Australian Dietary Guidelines say to ‘Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionary, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks.’
The World Health Organization say that free sugar should be less than 10 per cent of a person’s total energy intake per day. And they suggest a further reduction to below 5% of total energy intake. Depending on your daily intake, this would be roughly:
- For women: no more than 6 teaspoons added sugar per day (25 grams)
- For men: no more than 9 teaspoons added sugar per day (36 grams)
The UK Government also suggest 5 per cent or less of a person’s daily energy intake as a benchmark.
How can you reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet?
Aside from the more obvious suspects harbouring large amounts of sugar – chocolate, sweets, lollies, biscuits, pastries, doughnuts and ice cream, some other foods contain surprisingly high amounts.
Soft drinks can hide an enormous amount of added sugar. One can of Coca-Cola contains approximately 39 g of sugar. Energy drinks, fruit juices, cordials, iced tea and tonic water also can contain lots of sugar. Plain water, tea and coffee are better choices.
Breakfast cereals can be another source of large amounts of added sugar, along with muesli and granola bars. Dried fruit can increase the sugar content of cereals. Look for breakfast options with less or no sugar, such as plain oatmeal porridge, eggs and low-sugar cereals.
Many yoghurts contain high amounts of sweetening in the form of added sugars, especially low-fat varieties. Some breakfast yoghurts can contain nearly 20 g of sugar per pot. Read the label to check how much sugar is included.
Other surprising sources of sugar are some pasta sauces, pickles, chutney, salad dressings and coleslaws. One rule of thumb is that if the sugar content is more than 22.5 g per 100 g, that is a high amount of sugars.
Are sugar substitutes better than sugar?
Many people are turning to sugar substitutes, such as artificial sweeteners, in an effort to reduce their sugar and energy intake. But are they any better than sugar?
Although sweeteners contain less energy/fewer kilojoules than sugar, they may not be the perfect alternative. While they can help you reduce kilojoules and move towards a healthy weight, they won’t get rid of your sweet tooth, and some may still lead to tooth decay. There’s also some evidence that frequent use may change the way you taste foods and make unsweetened food less attractive.
There are 3 types of sweeteners – artificial sweeteners, nutritive sweeteners and natural intense sweeteners. All food labels in Australia must list any sweeteners in a product, so you should be able to identify them fairly easily.
Artificial sweeteners are found in many processed foods and drinks and can also be bought as tabletop sweeteners to be added to tea and coffee. You may have seen aspartame (marketed as Equal, Hermasetas Gold or Nutrasweet) and sucralose (Splenda). These are often labelled as ‘diet’ or ‘low kilojoule’ products. Some can be used in baking and cooking. These don’t have any adverse effect on your teeth.
Nutritive sweeteners, such as the sugar alcohols (lactilol, mannitol, maltitol, xylitol, sorbitol) generally have fewer kilojoules than sugar but still provide some kilojoules (hence they are labelled ‘nutritive’). Fructose, maltodextrin and polydextrose are all nutritive sweeteners. They have a strong laxative effect if consumed in large quantities.
Natural intense sweeteners
These sweeteners typically contain kilojoules. They include honey, maple syrup, molasses, agave, and date syrup. Stevia is another natural sweetener that is more than 200 times sweeter than sugar and contains zero kilojoules. It’s extracted from a South American shrub which is a member of the chrysanthemum family. Natural sweeteners may still lead to tooth decay and weight gain.
So, not all sweeteners are the same – you need to pick the most appropriate one for your needs. They all have different features. And again, it seems moderation may be key.
Last Reviewed: 11/10/2019
1. World Health Organization. Sugars intake for adults and children. Guideline. 2015. https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/guidelines/sugars_intake/en/
2. NSW Health. Sweeteners (sugar alternatives). Aug 2015. https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/heal/factsheets/sweeteners.pdf
3. Australian Government. NHMRC. Department of Health and Ageing. How to understand food labels. https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/files/eatingwell/efh_food_label_example_130621.pdf
4. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Sugar. (August 2019). http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/nutrition/Pages/Sugar.aspx
5. Jensen T, et al. Fructose and sugar: A major mediator of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. J Hepatol 2018; 68(5): 1063-75. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29408694
6. Danby FW. Nutrition and ageing skin - sugar and glycation. Clin Dermatol 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20620757
7. Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: the state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci 2016: 53: 52-67. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26376619
8. Australian Government Department of Health. NHMRC. Australian Dietary Guidelines 1-5. https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines/australian-dietary-guidelines-1-5
9. Diabetes UK. Nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. https://www.diabetes.co.uk/sweeteners/nutritive-and-nonnutritive-sweeteners.html
10. Freeman CR, Zehra A, Ramirez V, et al. Impact of sugar on the body, brain and behaviour. Front Biosc, Landmark, 2018; 23: 2255-66. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29772560
Baby foods - too much sugar and too little iron
The high sugar content of commercial baby foods has been flagged as a concern in a study of products in Australian supermarkets.
Takeaway foods are handy but can be loaded with fat, sugar and salt. Let myDr.com.au help you make healthier choices when you eat takeaway.
Dietary guidelines for healthy eating
The Australian Dietary Guidelines are designed to give you enough of the nutrients essential for good health and reduce your risk of some diseases.
Sugar alone not the problem in teenage obesity
Sugar is not the main culprit in teenage obesity, with a study showing a diet high in sugar and fat is more likely than sugar alone to cause teenage obesity.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
Even losing 5-10 per cent of your bodyweight if you are overweight or obese can have a beneficial effect. Find out how to lose weight and keep it off.