Sugar – your questions answered

Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital
05 November 2019
Next review due November 2022

From birthday cakes to biscuits, pick ‘n’ mix to pastries – lots of us enjoy a sweet treat from time to time. But in recent years, sugar has taken the place of fat as the proposed culprit for many of the health problems facing the public today. As headlines warn us to steer clear of the sweet stuff in order to protect our health, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to sugar. So we caught up with Bupa Dietitian, Niamh Hennessy, to debunk the myths and find out the answers to some of your most common questions about sugar.

Q: What’s the difference between carbohydrates and sugar?

Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, as they help to fuel your muscles, brain and other organs. But sugar is in fact a carbohydrate. So how can you provide your body with the carbohydrates it needs for energy, without eating too much sugar?

It first helps to understand that carbohydrates can be divided up into three types; sugars, starch and fibre. But it’s sugars and starch that provide your body with energy.

Starchy carbohydrates, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta, are made up of a number of smaller sugar molecules all joined together. Sugar is also found naturally in foods like fruit, vegetables and milk, and can provide a healthy source of carbohydrate in your diet. But it's also added to foods like cakes, sweets, biscuits and fizzy drinks during manufacturing. These added sugars are known as ‘free sugars’ – and it’s these free sugars that should only be eaten in small amounts.

When it comes to carbohydrates, the key is to avoid eating excessive amounts of free sugars, eat moderate amounts of the naturally-occurring sugars found in fruit, vegetables and dairy products, and focus mainly on the slow-releasing sugars found in wholegrain, starchy carbohydrates. As with all foods, it’s important to think about your portion size, so using the Eatwell Guide below is a great way to ensure you’re getting the right balance.

An image showing the recommended balance of the five major food groups

Q: Is the sugar in fruit bad for you?

A: Questions have been raised over whether or not the sugar in fruit is bad for you. But the sugars found in whole fruit are naturally occurring – not added or ‘free’ – so eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet, these are good for you.

Fruit also contains water, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help to protect your body from disease, so they’re an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. While it’s more difficult to overeat whole fruit (than say dried fruit or fruit juice), too much of any type of sugar may be harmful, so it’s still important to watch your portion sizes.

Q: Are fruit smoothies full of sugar?

A: It’s important to note that when you juice or blend fruit to make a smoothie or juice to drink, you remove much of the fibre. The naturally-occurring sugars in the fruit are released from the structure, making it much easier to overconsume energy from fruit.

These fruit juices and smoothies can still be a great source of nutrients. It’s recommended that you limit these to one small (150ml) glass of unsweetened, 100% fruit or vegetable juice or smoothie per day. Fruit juices and smoothies can only ever count as one of your five-a-day, even if you drink more than 150ml or your drink contains more than one type of fruit.

Q: Why does dried fruit have more sugar than fresh fruit?

A: When fruit is dried, the moisture is removed and so the sugar in it becomes much more concentrated. Think about the size of 20 grapes versus 20 raisins. Both contain the same amount of sugar, but you could probably eat 20 raisins in a few seconds without giving it much thought. It would take you far longer to eat 20 grapes, and you’ll also feel fuller after because of the extra water content and the time it takes to eat. It’s much easier to consume lots of dried fruit that’s more energy dense than it is to eat the whole fruit. One heaped tablespoon of dried fruit counts as one of your five-a-day.

Q: Is dried fruit better for you than eating sweets?

A: Dried fruit is a good source of fibre and micronutrients, and a natural source of flavouring for baked foods . So it’s healthier and more beneficial for you than eating sugary snacks like sweets and chocolate. But if you eat too much dried fruit, it could still lead to weight gain.

Q: Are sugar alternatives healthier?

A: Other sweet foods like honey, agave syrup, coconut sugar, fruit purees and pastes are often promoted as a healthier alternative to table sugar. Although they come from natural sources, these are still classed as ‘free’ sugars because the sugar isn’t part of the structure within a wholefood. So whether you choose to use traditional table sugar or a natural version of sugar in your cooking and baking is down to personal preference.

Q: What’s the difference between white and brown sugar?

A: Healthy eating guidelines often recommend that you eat brown varieties of starchy carbohydrates like rice, pasta and bread wherever possible. This is because wholegrain varieties contain more fibre. So you might also be wondering if brown sugar is better for you than white? But this is an easy mistake to make.

White table sugar (sucrose) is made from sugar cane or sugar beet. Brown sugar on the other hand, is simply white sugar, which has either been less processed with some molasses left in, or with molasses added to it. Molasses is the black treacle extracted from sugar cane and sugar beets during processing.

Brown sugar has a darker colour and flavour than white sugar, so works better when cooking and baking particular dishes. But nutritionally speaking, brown sugar is no healthier for you than white sugar.

Q: Are artificial sweeteners better for you than sugar?

A: Artificial sweeteners, also known as low calorie or no calorie sweeteners, are often used as a substitute for sugar. But are they safe to eat? And are they any better for you than sugar?

Sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar, so you only need to use a very small amount, and some are heat stable, so can be used in baking. Some common examples include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, stevia, xyltol and acesulfame-K.

Compared to sugar, artificial sweeteners don’t cause tooth decay and don’t cause your blood glucose levels to rise after mealtimes. This may be beneficial if you have diabetes. Although sweeteners contain less calories than sugar, we don’t yet know whether they can help maintain a healthy weight in the long term.

There are regulations in place which require artificial sweeteners to go through rigorous safety testing before they can be added to food and drinks. In addition to this, you’d have to consume huge quantities of sweeteners a day (for example up to 14 cans of sugar-free drinks) for it to have a negative impact on your health. Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to use artificial sweeteners instead of sugar is up to you.

Q: Do low-fat products contain more sugar than regular versions?

A: Supermarket shelves are often lined with fat-free, low-fat, reduced-fat, light and low-calorie versions of foods like yoghurts, cheeses, baked goods, dressings and sauces.

We know that eating a diet low in saturated fat is important to keep your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol low and help to look after your heart. But sometimes, when food manufacturers remove the fat from these products, they replace it with added sugar to improve the taste.

One study compared the sugar content in low-fat versus regular versions of food and found that the low-fat versions contained more sugar.

It’s important to check the nutrition labels on foods so you can make an informed choice. Use the traffic light system on the front of packaging to compare the fat, salt and sugar content of foods at a glance. Then compare the amounts ‘per 100g’ of the product listed on the back. Remember that for food:

  • more than 22.5g of sugar per 100g = high-sugar
  • less than 2.5g of sugar per 100ml = low-sugar

And for drinks:

  • more than 11.25g of sugar per 100ml = high-sugar
  • less than 5g of sugar per 100g = low-sugar

Q: What is meant by ‘naturally-occurring’ sugars?

A: You may have seen the statement ‘Contains naturally-occurring sugars’ on food labelling and be wondering what it means exactly. Simply put, naturally-occurring sugar is the sugar that’s already naturally present in the food. For example, the sugar found in fruit, vegetables and milk. ‘Added sugars’ on the other hand, are those which have been added to the food during processing.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Niamh Hennessy
Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital

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