Is sugar bad for you?
Well, yes, it can be. But that depends a lot on where you're getting the sugar, and how much of it you're eating.
Too much sugar in your diet is associated with a host of health problems: weight gain, obesity, and associated diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiac heart disease, and cancer, says dietician Sharmain Davis. But that doesn't mean that eating any amount of sugar is going to cause these problems.
"There's no bad food, only a bad diet," says dietitian Gaynor Bussell. "So sugar is not necessarily bad if it's balanced with other good things in a food."
How much sugar is too much sugar, then?
According to the NHS, no more than 10% of your daily intake of energy (measured as calories) should come from sugar. That means roughly 70g for men and 50g for women.
To put that into context, this is the amount of sugar some popular foods contain:
A small apple: 15g of sugar.
2 chocolate digestives: 9.2g of sugar.
A standard bar of 45g Dairy Milk chocolate: 25g of sugar.
2 slices of white toast: 2g of sugar.
2 slices of wholemeal toast: 1.6g of sugar.
A cheeky Nando's (half a chicken with a regular chips and coleslaw): 9.6g of sugar.
Hold up, that apple's got loads of sugar! Am I better off snacking on the biscuits?
Hmmm, not so soon, sweet tooth.
"The best diet is varied, and concentrates on foods where there are as many nutritional values as possible," says Bussell.
An apple has a fair amount of sugar in it, but it also has around 14% of the fibre you need for the day, 10% of your daily recommended vitamin C, and some vitamin A, calcium, and iron, and it contains no fat.
The pair of chocolate biscuits you might enjoy dunking in your tea, on the other hand, have less sugar, but have 8g of fat between them (about 12% of your recommended daily intake), only 7% of your fibre intake, and no real vitamins to speak of.
That's not to say you should always choose the fruit – just think about what other good a food might be doing you. "It's been found that chocolate has polyphenols (an antioxidant) that are good for you, and cocoa has plenty of proven benefits," says Bussell. But mind that you keep track of how much sugar something is providing you with too, and make sure you stay within your daily guideline.
Isn't the sugar in fruit better for you anyway?
Actually no. Sugar is sugar, no matter where it comes from. "There's sucrose, maltose, fructose [forms of sugar], and they're all the same for the body, they all become glucose [sugar's basic, molecular form that's used as energy by the body]," says dietitian Helen Bond. "The fructose in an apple is treated in the same way by your body as in the sucrose in a sugar bowl."
In fact, new research has suggested that fructose, or fruit sugar, could actually cause damage to the liver in the same way that alcohol can, if too much of it is consumed with not enough fibre.
The difference is that naturally occurring sugar in whole foods like fruit, dairy, and even vegetables (what do you think makes sweet potatoes taste sweet?) is generally balanced out by the other nutritional benefits those foods offer – as long as you're eating them in moderation.
Whereas adding a spoon of sugar to tea, say, or sugar-rich maple syrup to your yoghurt, is simply adding superfluous energy without adding any nutritional benefit. Empty calories, if you will.
Think of it like this: If you put a sugar in your tea, you're still going to need to eat the apple to get the vitamin C and fibre you need, so you end up with a double whammy of sugar. If you don't eat the apple because you've used up your sugar allowance on the sweet tea, then you've lost out on the vitamin C and fibre.
Is it right to avoid fruit juice then, because that must have loads of sugar in it?
"The calories you drink don't get recognised by the brain as quickly – the more chewing the better – so you get less satiety from more calories," says Bussell, which means you might find yourself mainlining a fruit juice or smoothie without realising just how much sugar you've had.
But, she continues, "You can still have 150ml of fruit juice in a day, and it's recognised as a source of fruit, with all the other nutritional benefits that comes with."
One hundred and fifty millilitres of orange juice has around 13g of sugar, but it also has a massive 131% of your recommended vitamin C intake, as well as 6% of your vitamin A.
What about fruit smoothies? Are they any better?
A typical strawberry and banana smoothie has quite a high level of sugar, at 26g in a 250ml serving, but it also has 56% of your recommended daily vitamin C intake, so is still not a terrible choice so long as you're mindful of the amount of sugar in everything else you eat that day.
Plus, with a smoothie you will get more fibre than you would from a juice, because the fruit pulp isn't filtered out.
The important thing to remember with juices and smoothies is just how little of them you need to drink to get these vitamins, while also eating a considerable way into your sugar allowance for the day. "Juice is fine, you just don't want to drink a whole litre carton of it, because that will be a lot of calories, which will turn to weight," says Bond.
The way to tell if something's high in sugar is easy: "The sweeter it tastes, the more sugar it has," says Bussell.
And if you can't try before you buy, read the label.
Ingredients are listed in order of greatness, so the higher up the list something is, the more of it a product contains.
"If sugar's way down the ingredients list on a product, then probably don't worry about it," says Bussell. For example, a small amount of sugar in pasta sauce may be there to balance acidity, or a tiny amount might help ferment yeast in bread, so is not of any great concern.
But "if it's one of the first four ingredients, it's likely to be a high-added-sugar option," suggests Davis. So a cake might have sugar as its primary ingredient, while a typical jam might list it in its top four.
In exact terms, "If there is more than 22.5g of sugar per 100g of food, it's high, and if there's less than 5g per 100g then it's low," Bond tells us. So bear that in mind when reading the ingredients on things like savoury ready meals where you might not expect to find sugar.
Let's cut to the important stuff: What's the deal with booze?
Unfortunately, no dietitian would suggest a "good" booze option to us.
"The sugar added when alcoholic drinks are made converts into alcohol, so a dry wine or other spirits will have very little sugar, but the concern is the amount of alcohol and negative health benefits from this," says dietitian Christina Merryfield.
But if you were worrying only about sugar, which we by no means advise, this is what you'd need to know:
A typical large glass (250mls) of dry white wine: 1.4g of sugar.
A typical large glass (250mls) of red wine: 6g of sugar.
A pint of lager: 17.6g of sugar.
A pint of draught ale: 13.1g of sugar.
A pint of Guinness: 18.2g of sugar.
A pint of cider: 12.8g of sugar.
A 35ml measure of gin: NO sugar!
A 35ml measure of vodka: NO sugar!
A 35ml measure of whiskey: NO sugar!
The important to thing to remember with spirits, though, is that you might be adding a load of sugar with your mixers. If you're chugging back the vodka and oranges all night, or gin with regular tonic, or vodka and and a sweetened beverage like Coke or whatever, there will inevitably be a lot of sugar involved.
Add soda, diet mixers, or simply drink your spirits straight, and sugar will be no concern of yours. Other problems associated with the consumption of alcohol, however, might be.
TL;DR: You don't need to cut out sugar, you just have be careful not to eat too much.
Eat as many whole, fresh, and natural foods as possible, such as fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, and whole grains. They might have some natural sugar, but they also have vitamins, fibre, calcium, and all sorts of other good things that you need.
Don't add sugar where you don't need it – drink water rather than fizzy drinks, for example – and use your allowance on foods with other nutritional benefits.
If you're unsure how much sugar something has, let the ingredients guide you, and if it doesn't have an ingredients list because it's a fruit or other whole food, taste it. If it's sweet, there will be sugar.
Most of all, consider the whole picture. Even if something's not the lowest sugar option, it may have enough other nutritional benefits that mean it's the most sensible food to choose. Be mindful of how it fits in with the variety of other foods you're eating, and you can't go wrong.