Increasing evidence suggests that it's the sugar, rather than fat, in our diets that is the major contributing factor to our obesity epidemic. Registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains the 'hidden' sugar you may not know you're eating and how to spot it on food labels...


What is sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate – it is found naturally in some food and drinks and often added to others. There are two types of sugar: naturally occurring sugar, such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit, or added '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 that we cut back on these 'free sugars.'

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? Discover more at our sugar hub.

How much sugar should I eat each day?

Recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK's official nutrition advisors are that only 5% of our daily calorie intake should come from added 'free' sugar.

This means:

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

Why is sugar bad for me?

Consuming too much sugar may lead to a variety of health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.

If you're active and exercise regularly some sugar can help 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 at children – have added sugar that supplies energy in the form of ‘empty’ calories, this means we end up consuming more sugar than we need and is not good for us.

Eating too much sugar, regularly, may lead to:

  • Energy slumps: a high intake of sugar causes our blood sugar levels to shoot up, giving us that feel-good 'high’, but this is swiftly followed by a crashing slump that leaves us tired, irritable and craving more sugary foods - this vicious cycle may also compound other health problems.
  • Weight gain: over-consumption of sugar leads to extra pounds and this may in turn increase our risk of chronic health conditions including diabetes and heart disease.
  • Tooth decay: is a common problem and its incidence is rising due to the number of sugary snacks and fizzy drinks we consume.
Sugary foods in a toy trolley

Where are hidden sugars?

Those of us without a sweet tooth may still be eating more than we realise because so many shop-bought foods contain sugar – from cereals and bread to pasta sauce. Here are some common examples:

  • Low-fat and ‘diet' foods often contain added sugar to help improve taste and palatability and to add texture to the product
  • Off the shelf savoury foods, like ready-made soups and sauces
  • Breakfast cereals, bread and yogurt may contain added sugar
  • Fizzy drinks – on average one can contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar.

How is sugar listed on food labels?

You can find out 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 considered low, more than 22.5g per 100g is high.
  • Check the ingredients list – any items ending in 'ose' (glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose) are all forms of sugar, as are honey, agave, molasses and syrups like corn and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredient list these are, the more sugar the product contains.
  • Manufacturers are increasingly using what they describe as more ‘natural’ sugars like coconut sugar. These are still ‘free’ sugars and carry the same health risks, despite their healthy ‘halo’.
  • Know your substitutes. Xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol as well as stevia occur naturally in small amounts in plants and fruits and are often used in low-calorie products to provide sweetness, but with fewer calories.

The word 'sugar' written into sugar grains

What can I do to minimise my sugar intake?

It can be hard to spot added sugar, because labels include naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. The most effective way to minimise your intake is to avoid highly processed foods, buy whole foods and cook from scratch when you can. When you do buy off the shelf, check the ingredient list carefully. In addition to this, add less sugar to tea or coffee and choose water instead of sugary drinks.

Find out more at our sugar hub.

Like this? Now read...

10 things you should know before giving up sugar
All you need to know about sugar
Sarah Wilson: how to quit sugar
Davina McCall: How to be sugar-free
Top sugar swaps for your family
BBC Good Food's guide to sugar-free baking
Our favourite lower sugar recipes
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This article was reviewed on 17 May 2024 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of both the Guild of Food Writers and the Guild of Health Writers. Over the last two decades she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_


All health content on 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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