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Avoiding hidden sugars

Wednesday 12 July 2017

A man and woman stand in the fridge section of the supermarket, with a trolley full of groceries, reading the ingredients on the back of a yoghurt container.>
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Sugar can be added to foods that are both sweet and savoury, meaning we might be eating a lot more of it than we think.

We all know that consuming too much sugar isn’t good for us, but it’s not always easy to know how much sugar we’re eating and drinking.

Sugars are carbohydrates. Like all carbohydrates, they provide a source of energy in our diet. Sugar is a term that includes all sweet carbohydrates, although it’s most often is used to describe sucrose or table sugar, a ‘double sugar’. The body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars, such as glucose, that can be readily used in the body.

While some naturally sweet food items contain sugar, like fruit or dairy, extra sugar is added to all sorts of processed foods. From the sweet items we would expect to be sugary, like chocolate bars, to savoury things like barbeque sauce, or even options we might consider to be healthy choices, like some mueslis – added sugars in our everyday food items can mean that we’re consuming a lot of extra sugar.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends eating no more than six teaspoons of added sugar every day. According to Sugar By Half, some go-to snacks, like a muffin or can of soft drink, might contain more than this amount in just one serving.

How to tell how much sugar is in packaged food?

On packaged foods, you can find sugars included in the ingredients list and on the nutrition information panel.

Ingredients are listed in order by weight, which means the closer an ingredient is to the start of the list, the more of it is included in the food. Sugar won’t always be listed under the name ‘sugar’ on the ingredients list. Manufacturers might use names like glucose, sucrose, golden syrup, maltose, maltodextrin or disaccharides, just to name a few. Sugar By Half has more information about how to spot sugars in ingredients lists.

The nutrition information panel lists how much sugar is in each serving of the food, showing the weight in grams. Aim for 15grams of sugar per 100grams, or less.

Learn more about how to read nutrition labels here.

Where to watch out for hidden sugars?

Soft drinks, baked goods, lollies, flavoured milks and desserts can all have high amounts of sugar. Also keep an eye on the sugar added to foods you might not think of as “sweet”, like:

  • sauces, including condiments, stir fry sauces, pizza and pasta sauces
  • salad dressings
  • bread
  • yoghurts
  • mueslis and cereals
  • alcoholic drinks
  • iced tea
  • and protein bars.

A row of jars sit on a table, containing tomato sauce, mayonnaise, seeded mustard, jam and beetroot hummus.

Why is eating too much sugar bad for you?

Sugar is a carbohydrate, which is one of the nutrients our bodies use to make energy. If we eat too much sugar, our body will store the excess energy we eat as fat, which can lead to becoming overweight or obese. Being overweight is linked to higher risks of diseases like heart disease and some cancers. Excess sugar consumption is also linked to the development of Type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

Besides carbohydrates, most sugary foods don’t contain many other nutrients, like protein, vitamins or minerals. This can mean that eating sugary foods fills us up, but doesn’t provide our body with much nourishment.

What to eat instead?

For a healthy, balanced diet, cut down on foods and drinks containing added sugars. These tips can help you cut down:

  • avoid sugary drinks, choosing tap water over soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks or flavoured milks.
  • swap sugary foods for foods with less added sugar (aim for 15g of sugar per 100g, or less)
  • try cooking some new healthy, recipes at home, instead of eating packaged foods
  • explore the Australian Dietary Guidelines to find out how much of each food group you should aim to eat each day
  • use the Sugar By Half sugar calculator to find out how much sugar you’re eating
  • choose wholegrain breakfast cereals, but not those coated with sugar or honey
  • and check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the low-sugar version.
Last updated: 23 August 2017