Hand picking up a donut from a plate on a blue background

Why is sugar bad for you?

Why is sugar bad for you, and what is the recommended daily allowance? Nutritionist, Kerry Torrens discusses the most common sources of hidden sugar and easy ways to reduce your intake.

There is increasing research to suggest that it’s the sugar rather than the fat in our diets that is the major contributing factor to our obesity epidemic. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains the ‘hidden’ sugar you may not know you’re eating and how to spot it on food labels…

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How much sugar should I be eating per day?

Recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK’s official nutrition advisors are that only 5% of your daily calorie intake should consist of added, or ‘free’ sugars. This means:

  • Adults should have no more than 30g a day (approximately seven sugar cubes).
  • Children aged 4-6 years old should have no more than 19g a day (five sugar cubes).
  • Children aged 7-10 years old should have no more than 24g a day (six sugar cubes).

Find out more about your recommended daily sugar allowance in our guide on ‘how much sugar should I eat’. Looking for a sweet alternative or want to know your fructose from your sucrose? Find out more in our sugar hub.

Types of sugar

Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in a host of different foods, from lactose in milk to fructose in fruit and honey. There are two types of sugar: naturally occurring sugar (such as the lactose in milk) and added or ‘free’ sugars that include refined table sugar (sucrose) as well as concentrated sources like fruit juice, honey and syrups. Health organisations including the NHS advise we cut back on these ‘free sugars’.

Why is sugar bad for you?

Consuming too much sugar can lead to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.

If you’re very active and exercise regularly some sugar in your diet helps supply ready energy to fuel your muscles and keep your brain active. The problem for the majority of us is that many of the processed foods we eat – in particular, those marketed to children – have added sugar that supplies energy in the form of calories, and very little else, so we end up consuming more than we need. This can lead to:

  • Energy slumps: a high intake of sugar causes our blood sugar levels to shoot up, giving us that feel-good ‘high’ followed by a crashing slump that leaves us tired, irritable and craving more sugary foods. This vicious cycle is then likely to compound other health problems.
  • Weight gain: which can in turn increase your risk of health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
  • Fizzy drinks and sugary snacks have been linked to rising tooth decay in children.

In recognition of these issues, the government has released guidelines for the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar in packaged products.

A cupcake topped with chocolate icing which has been dropped on the floor

Hidden sources of sugar

The instant ‘lift’ we get from sugar is one of the reasons we turn to it at times of celebration, or when we crave comfort or reward. However, even those of us without a sweet tooth may be eating more than we realise because so many everyday processed foods, from cereals and bread to pasta sauce and soups, contain sugar.

  • ‘Low-fat’ and ‘diet’ foods often contain extra sugar to help improve their taste and palatability and to add bulk and texture in place of fat.
  • Even savoury foods, like ready-made soups and sauces may contain added sugar.
  • A can of soft drink, on average, contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar.
  • The natural sugar in some fruit, including apples, has increased as new varieties (including Pink Lady, Fuji and Jazz) are bred to satisfy our desire for greater sweetness.
Three cans of soft drinks surrounded by sugar cubes

What to look for on food labels

Discover how much sugar is in your food by doing these simple checks:

  • Look at the ‘carbs as sugars’ on the nutrition panel. This includes both natural and added sugars. Less than 5g per 100g is low, more than 22.5g per 100g is high.
  • Check the ingredients list for anything ending in ‘ose’ (glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose). These are all forms of sugar, as are honey, agave, molasses and syrups like corn and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredients list these are, the more sugar the product contains.
  • Know your substitute. For example, xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol. These occur naturally in small amounts in plants and fruits and are often used in low-calorie products to provide sweetness but with fewer calories. Xylitol can be used in home baking as a replacement for regular sugar (ratio 1:1) although your bakes won’t brown as much and xylitol can’t be used where yeast is the raising agent.

Useful resources for cutting down on sugar:

Davina McCall: How to be sugar-free
Our favourite lower sugar recipes
BBC Good Food’s guide to sugar-free baking

Like this? Now read…

10 things you should know before giving up sugar
All you need to know about sugar
More health & nutrition tips


This page was reviewed on 11th September 2020 by Tracey Raye.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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Whether you’re looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts, find all the answers in our sugar hub.