Unhappy gingerbread biscuit

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 and certain drinks by 20%. This was partly an attempt to curb the proportion of the population who are overweight or obese, a definition that now applies to almost 2 in 3 adults in England. But has it been a success?

The latest report, published in December 2022, found only mixed progress. Retailer- and manufacturer-branded breakfast cereals saw a 14.9% drop in sugar content, while yoghurts and fromage frais saw sugar content fall by 13.5% between the baseline year 2015 and 2019. Yet sugar content in puddings fell by 2.3% over this period, barely cancelling out the 2% increase over the previous reporting period. 

Plus, sugar levels in chocolate and sweet confectionery remained largely unchanged, even as sales increased. 

Overall, there was just a 3.5% sugar reduction across all food categories as of December 2022, far below the government’s target.

It may have taken almost a millennium from the first recorded mention of sugar in England in 1069 to become a significant issue, but obesity rates and cases of type 2 diabetes are rising fast. 

Meanwhile, one of the most common causes of child hospital admissions for general anaesthetic is for tooth extractions linked to dental decay and excess sugar consumption. Hear more on the importance of oral health in this podcast.

With this in mind, 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, as well as free sugars. Free sugars include:

  • honey, syrups and nectars (whether added by consumers or manufacturers to food or drinks)
  • malt extract
  • glucose syrup
  • 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
  • sugary breakfast cereals
  • yoghurts.

Even savoury foods you might not think contain much sugar can have lots of it, including sauces such as ketchup or preprepared sauces.

Why cut back on the sweet stuff?

Health experts are most concerned with reducing consumption of free sugars. Cutting this to match NHS 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)
  • obesity
  • type 2 diabetes
  • coronary heart disease
  • non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • high blood pressure
  • Alzheimer’s disease/dementia.

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

How to reduce my 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 spends £14 billion annually (10 pence in every pound of its budget), on treating diabetes and its complications.

Here are some tips to cut the amount of sugar in your diet.

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. 

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! 

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. 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.

Nutrition support

These tips can make for a healthier you.  For Unum Group Income Protection customers, our award-winning health and wellbeing app Help@hand* offers access to nutrition consultations with a qualified nutritionist. They’ll be able to make suggestions on how to improve your diet to meet your health and fitness goals, including cutting out the dreaded sugar habit to aim for a healthier you.

* Help@hand is provided to Unum Group customers by Square Health. It offers access to services designed to manage the health and wellbeing of employees and their families. Help@hand is entirely separate from any Unum insurance policy. Help@hand is not part of the insurance contract, is provided by Unum for no additional cost to its customers, and Unum can withdraw or change the service in the future. Help@hand is available to UK residents only.

Square Health Limited, registered in England and Wales Number 07054181. Crown House, William Street, Windsor SL4 1AT.

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