Last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) released new recommendations for the intake of free sugar in both children and adults. It recommended that free sugar should be reduced throughout the life course to less than 10% of total energy intake with further benefits being seen if free sugar is reduced to less than 5% of total energy (roughly 6 tsps sugar/day).

So what exactly are free sugars?

Free sugars as defined by the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition (SACN) describes them as:

Free sugars’ comprises all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. Under this definition lactose (the sugar in milk) when naturally present in milk and milk products and the sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods (particularly fruits and vegetables) are excluded.”

And what isn’t free sugar?

  • Sugar naturally present in fruit
  • Sugar naturally present in vegetables
  • Sugar naturally present in cereals and grains
  • Lactose – the sugar naturally found in milk and milk products

But how do we eat less free sugar?

Learn to read labels

There are plenty of names for sugar – learn to look for them in the ingredients list.

The other thing to look for is how much sugar there is per 100g of the product. If the product has more than 15g sugar/ 100g then it is probably too high in sugar to be a good choice. If choosing something like a breakfast cereal or yoghurt up to 20 or 25g sugar per 100g may be acceptable for an occasional choice.

If there is less than 5g sugar per 100g this is likely to be a good choice.

Unfortunately in New Zealand our food labels don’t differentiate between natural occurring sugar and added or free sugar. This can get confusing when looking at things like milk products such as yoghurt which have natural occurring sugars, but might also have added sugar. Due to the natural occurring lactose in these products there will usually be around 5g sugar/ 100g anyway. This is not a reason to disregard this product, but anything above 5g is likely to be added sugar.

From July 2018 the States is looking to separate natural sugar from added sugar to help inform the consumer a little more.

Imagine the sugar listed on a label in teaspoons

Remember we are aiming for less than about 6tsps of added sugar per day. Roughly 4g of sugar listed on a label will equal 1tsp of sugar. Sometimes visualising the amount of sugar is enough to put us off!!

Avoid eating packaged foods

To save time and the hassle of label reading, avoid packaged foods as much as possible. In order to help lengthen the shelf life of products and to improve palatability sugar is often added to packaged foods. This means the more whole foods you can eat, the better!

Shop the perimeter of the supermarket

This is where you will find most of your core ingredients such as fruit and vegetables, milk products, butchery and seafood items. These items should make up the bulk of your grocery shop as they will be minimally processed and packaged. These foods are all nutrient dense with the least processing meaning less chance to add sugar!

Stop drinking your sugar

Common fizzy drinks will have around 9 tsps of sugar in them if not more. That’s already more than WHO recommends in an entire day!

Any kind of sugary drink is best avoided. That includes all fruit juices, fruit drinks, cordials, fizzy drinks, iced teas, flavoured milks, energy drinks as well as adding sugar to drinks.

Currently 30% of New Zealand men and 17% of women consume fizzy or energy drinks three or more times each week! This is far too many!

Instead choose water as your main drink and add your own flavouring with things like herbs and lemon juice.

Swap your snacks

Again avoid packaged snacks as much as possible. In the very least choose snacks that have been through the least processing as possible. Choosing whole foods where possible will help with this.

And finally

Remember we don’t need to go ‘sugar free’ or limit foods unnecessarily. We don’t need to cut all fruit and milk products out of our diets. Treats are perfectly acceptable so long as we recognise them as being ‘occasional’ foods rather than ‘every day’ foods.

If you are careful and mindful about your choices for the majority of the time, a bowl of ice cream or a slice of cake on occasion will help you to maintain a healthful relationship with food whilst achieving fantastic health and wellbeing!




WHO – Guidelines: Sugars intake for adults and children 2015

SACN 2015 Carbohydrates and health report

Ministry of Health. 2015. Eating and Activity Guidelines for New Zealand Adults. Wellington: Ministry of Health

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