Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don't need to cut down on these types of sugars.
Sugars are also added to a wide range of foods, such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and some soft drinks and juice drinks. These are the sugary foods that we should aim to reduce in our diets.
Why cut down on sugars?
Evidence shows that most adults and children consume more sugar than is recommended as part of a healthy balanced diet. Sugar should make up less than 10% of the energy you get from food, but many of us are eating far more than that, mostly from ‘discretionary’ foods and beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable juices, cordial, confectionary and cakes and muffins.
Many foods that contain added sugars also contain lots of calories, so eating these foods often can contribute to you becoming overweight.
Food and drinks that have a lot of added sugars contain calories, but often have few other nutrients. To eat a healthy, balanced diet, we should eat these types of foods only occasionally, and get the majority of our calories from other kinds of foods such as starchy foods and fruits and vegetables.
Sugary foods and drinks can also cause tooth decay, especially if you eat them between meals. The longer the sugary food is in contact with the teeth, the more damage it can cause.
The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay, because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit. But when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released these sugars can damage teeth, especially if fruit juice is drunk frequently.
Fruit juice without added sugar is still a healthy choice, and half a cup of juice counts as as a standard serve of fruit.
Tips to cut down on sugars
For a healthy, balanced diet, cut down on foods and drinks containing added sugars.
These tips can help you cut down:
- Instead of sugary soft drinks and juice drinks, go for water or unsweetened fruit juice (remember to dilute these for children, to further reduce the sugar).
- If you like soft drinks, try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water.
- Swap cakes or biscuits for a piece of fruit.
- If you take sugar in hot drinks, or add sugar to your breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether, or try using a natural honey.
- Rather than spreading jam or honey on your toast, try a low-fat spread, sliced banana or low-fat cream cheese instead.
- Check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the low-sugar version.
- Try halving the sugar you use in your recipes. It works for most things except jam, meringues and ice-cream.
- Choose tins of fruit in juice or water rather than syrup.
- Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals, but not those coated with sugar or honey.
Nutrition labels and sugars
Nutrition labels often tell you how much sugar a food contains. You can compare labels, and choose foods that are lower in sugar. You can tell if the food contains lots of added sugars by checking the ingredients list.
Sometimes you will see a figure for 'Carbohydrates', and not for sugar/s. The 'Carbohydrates' figure will also include starchy carbohydrates, so you can't use it to work out the sugar content. In this case, check the ingredients list to see if the food is high in added sugars.
You can get an idea of whether a food is high in added sugars by looking at the ingredients list. Added sugars must be included in the ingredients list, which always starts with the biggest ingredient. This means that if you see sugar near the top of the list, you know the food is likely to be high in added sugars.
Watch out for other words that are used to describe added sugars, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch and invert sugar, corn syrup and honey.
Labels on the front of packaging
There are labels containing nutritional information on the front of some food packaging.
This includes the daily intake labelling, a voluntary front-of-pack labelling scheme adopted by the food and beverage industry to make it easier for consumers to make informed dietary choices. It provides a better view of what's in your food and drink.
The Daily Intake Guide is the presentation of ‘thumbnails’ on a product’s packaging, which indicate the amount per serve for energy and nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, sugars, fat, saturated fat and sodium) and the percentage of daily intake these represent per serve.
This labelling makes it easy for consumers to see the relationship between a serve of food and their daily requirements. In line with the Food Standards Code, the ‘daily intakes’ in the thumbnails are based on those for an average adult diet of 8700KJ, including food and drink.
If you want learn more about how to read these labels, check out the Australian Food and Grocery Councils guide.
Last reviewed: October 2016