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The not-so-sweet spot: The bitter truth about sugar

In 2016, the government challenged the food and hospitality industry to reduce sugar in foods that contribute most to children’s sugar consumption by 20%.

The latest report, published in October 2020, found only mixed progress. While retailer- and manufacturer-branded breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fromage frais saw a drop in sugar content of around 13% between the baseline year 2015 and 2019, sugar levels in chocolate and sweet confectionery remained largely unchanged, even as sales increased.

Overall, there was just a 3% sugar reduction across all food categories as of October 2020, far below the government’s target.

This is a problem. In the UK, 36.2% of adults are overweight and 28% are obese, making almost 2 in 3 people an unhealthy weight.1 One cause of weight gain is excessive sugar intake.2

It may have taken almost a millennium from the first recorded mention of sugar in England in 10693 to become a significant issue, but obesity rates and cases of type 2 diabetes are rising.1,4

Meanwhile, one of the most common cause of child hospital admissions for general anaesthetic is for tooth extractions linked to dental decay and excess sugar consumption.5,6 It’s time we assessed the bitter truth about sugar and its impact on our health.

What is sugar?

This may seem a silly question. After all, many of us have probably shovelled the white granulated stuff into our tea for years (or adding lumps if you’re fancy). However, it’s actually a bit more complicated. Granulated sugar — that staple of hot beverages, cakes, biscuits and more — is just one type of sugar.

The world of sugar is split into:

  • Naturally occurring sugars
    Found in whole fruit, vegetables and milk-based products
  • Free sugars
    Honey, syrups and nectars (whether added by consumers or manufacturers), malt extract, glucose syrup, plus lactose, galactose and all sugars naturally present in fruit/vegetable juices/smoothies/ purées, concentrates, pastes, powders and extruded fruit and vegetable products when they’re added as ingredients.

What foods are high in sugar?

Free sugars are found in:

  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Biscuits
  • Cakes
  • Chocolate/sweets
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Ice cream
  • Squash/cordials
  • Sugary breakfast cereals
  • Yoghurts.

Even savoury foods you might not think contain much sugar can have lots of it, including sauces such as ketchup and salad cream.7

Why cut back on the sweet stuff?

When health experts consider sugar, they’re most concerned with reducing consumption of free sugars. Cutting this to match government guidelines — which recommends free sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5% of daily calories — could help reduce your risk of:

  • Tooth decay (and therefore fillings, crowns, root canals and extractions)8
  • Obesity9
  • Type 2 diabetes10
  • Coronary heart disease11
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease11
  • High blood pressure12
  • Alzheimer’s disease/dementia.13

Yet the proportion of adults’ calorie intake from free sugar is almost double government recommendations, at 9.9% for those aged 19-64 and 9.4% for those aged 65+.14

How to reduce sugar intake

With all this in mind, it’s important to monitor our sugar consumption and reduce intake to meet government guidelines. This is not just for our health — it will also benefit the public purse given the NHS in England and Wales spends £14 billion annually (10 pence in every pound of its budget), on treating diabetes and its complications.

Here are some tips to cut your sugar intake.

Swap fizzy drinks

Choose plain water, semi-skimmed milk or no-added sugar juice drinks. If you can’t get enough of carbonation, try making up no added sugar squash with fizzy water. This not only cuts sugar consumption, but also reduces the risk of tooth decay, toothache and pricy dental bills. Hear more on the importance of oral health in this podcast.

Smooth criminals

Beware smoothies (and not just because of the mess they make of your blender). Blitzing whole fruit and veg destroys most of the fibre/roughage you’d get from the raw ingredients, which is important for digestive health and also slows absorption of the naturally occurring sugars in the fruit and veg. Shop-bought smoothies can also contain added sugar.

Check food labels

Labels rarely simply say ‘sugar’. Manufacturers might list added sugar as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, molasses, corn syrup or hydrolysed starch.

Ditch frosted cereals

Instead of frosted cereals, try porridge, wholewheat cereals, shredded wholegrains or bran flakes. To brighten them up, add chopped fruit such as a banana or a handful of berries towards your five-a-day.

Don’t go stir crazy

If you can’t get through the day without sugary tea or coffee, gradually reduce the sugar you add. Next Monday, add half a teaspoon less to your brew for a week. The following Monday, subtract another half a teaspoon. If you go gradually, you might not notice the difference!

Alternatively, if you really need that sweet taste, consider artificial sweeteners.

Savoury isn’t safe

As mentioned, sugar can end up in strange places. Shop-bought pasta and curry sauces, ketchup, salad dressings and other condiments can all be high in sugar. For example, a third of an average-sized jar of pasta sauce can contain three teaspoons of sugar15 (including added sugar)! You could consider low-sugar options or try making your own from scratch.

Snack wisely

Sometimes, you need a little something between meals. There’s nothing wrong with that in moderation providing you stick to a calorie intake appropriate for your day. However, snacks are sugar smugglers. Cereal bars, biscuits, chocolate and cakes are high in sugar. Healthier options include unsalted nuts, vegetable batons or fresh, tinned or frozen fruit.

Dismal dairy

Dairy products such as reduced-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt form part of a healthy diet. They’re full of calcium and vitamin B12 and are good for muscles, bones, nerves teeth and skin. However, when these are whipped into formulations such as fromage frais and ice cream, manufacturers often add sugar. Almost 17% of a fruit yoghurt might be sugar!8

Follow these tips for a healthier you, while employees covered by certain Unum group protection policies can get extra support on diet and nutrition from our employee assistance programme LifeWorks.*

* Unum’s Employee Assistance Programme, provided by LifeWorks, is a value-added benefit service which connects the employees of Unum customers to third party specialists who can help with life, money and wellbeing issues. Access to the app and the service is facilitated at no cost by Unum. Unum is not the provider of the service but retains the right to withdraw or change the service at any time.


1 House of Commons Library, Briefing paper 3336: Obesity statistics, January 2021 (p.4)
Action on Sugar (AOS), Sugars and obesity
Making sense of sugar, History of sugar
Diabetes UK, 1-in-10 adults living with diabetes by 2020, October 2021
University College London, Sugar in processed food is fuelling oral health crisis, July 2019
Public Health England (PHE), Dental public health epidemiology programme: Oral health survey of five-year-old children 2016–17, August 2017 (p.32)
National Health Service (NHS), Top sources of added sugar in our diet, January 2019
AOS, Sugars and tooth decay
AOS, Sugars and obesity
Diabetes UK, 10 tips for healthy eating if you are at risk of type 2 diabetes
British Medical Journal, Health and economic benefits of reducing sugar intake in the USA, including effects via non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a microsimulation model, June 2017
Birmingham City School of Health Sciences, Four benefits of cutting back sugar
Alzheimer’s Society, Sugary diet may increase risk of Alzheimer's disease, July 2018
PHE and Food Standards Agency, National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling programme Years 9 to 11 (2016/2017 to 2018/2019), December 2020 (p.15)
NHS, How to cut down on sugar in your diet, December 2018

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