Sugar: Toxic or a treat?


Sugar. Something that makes the medicine go down? Or a sinful poison?

Sugar 101

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, a substance contained in most of the foods we eat. Some carbohydrate-based foods are healthier (think vegetables, fruits and dairy), while others are less healthy. The less healthy carbohydrates are chocolate, sweets, ice cream and soft drinks and so on.

Sugar is found naturally in some of these foods and is added to others, to sweeten and improve the flavour or to extend the shelf life.

It is important to be aware of the difference between the two.

Naturally occurring sugars found in fruits, vegetables and dairy should be eaten, as these foods are healthy, nutritious choices.

Added sugars should be eaten in moderation as they do not add much nutrition. 

Is sugar really that bad for us?

You need to consider how much you eat and how often you eat it. A small amount as part of a healthy lifestyle is fine, but it can become a problem when most of what you eat is from sweet, highly processed foods. This can lead to weight gain, poor energy levels, tooth decay and other health problems.

The World Health Organisation recommends sugar intake should be just five percent of our total daily calorie intake. That’s about 25g or six teaspoons per day. However, recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed the average amount of added sugars eaten is a huge 60g a day. That’s the same as 14 teaspoons!

So it boils down to balance. Sugar is often feared and demonised but there is nothing wrong with enjoying a chocolate bar or a slice of birthday cake every so often if the rest of the time you lead an active, healthy life. But if you notice you can’t get through the day without something sweet, or a lot of the foods you eat are highly processed and sweet, it might be time to make some changes. Take a look at 5 easy ways to cut down on sugar here for some ideas.

Hidden sugars

The obvious places to find sugar are in sweet foods like chocolate, soft drinks, dessert, cakes and so on. But it can be harder to know how much sugar we are eating when it’s hidden in other food products.

Confusingly, it comes in a number of forms and goes by many names: there are over 60 different names for sugar found on food labels, making it very difficult when you’re trying to decipher what you are eating. Check out this infographic from That Sugar Film that lists these.

Sugar names

Some of the worst culprits for the hidden sweet stuff are in foods promoted as health foods, such as muesli bars, some cereals, smoothies and Bliss Balls (dried fruit and nut balls that are popular). These foods are heavily marketed as being healthy but contain things like honey, dates, agave nectar, rice malt syrup and other sweeteners that still count as added sugar, so they aren’t as healthy as we are made to believe.

Other offenders are savoury foods – think sauces, condiments and dressings. BBQ sauce is one-third sugar and most hot chilli sauces also contain sugar, as do pasta sauces and low-fat salad dressing.

Sugar detective

Short of taking the entire list of sugar names with you when you shop and scrutinising each label; there is an easier way to see how much sugar in the foods you buy.

Simply check the label for sugar per 100g and aim for a number less than 5g. This is considered a low sugar food.  If the food comes from milk or fruit, you call allow up to 25 g per 100g as it will contain naturally occurring sugar.

What’s the deal with fructose? Is it worse than glucose?

Glucose and fructose are both types of sugars, found naturally in many foods such as fruits and vegetables. Both are also added to foods to make them taste sweeter. The main difference between them is how our body uses them for energy.

Our body prefers glucose as a source of energy, so our brain and muscles readily take it in for fuel. Fructose is also used for energy, although the process is a little different. There is a common belief that all fructose is directly converted to fat in the body, but this isn’t strictly true.

When we eat foods containing fructose, most of it is converted to glucose and used as energy. Then, if anything is left over, it’s converted to fat. However, this only happens if a person is eating more than they are burning off. So if you overeat, the body will turn those extra sugars into fat. But this is less to do with fructose – the problem here is overeating.

If you are a healthy person in a normal weight range, eating enough to maintain your body weight, only very small amount of fructose is turned into fat, about 1–3%.

There are many claims that fructose is bad for us and can cause health problems, but the science and research just aren’t there yet to support these claims. It is still a long way from being able to tell us the link between fructose and the suggested health risks.

Sweet spot

To sum it up, there is no one food or nutrient that is good or bad. One salad doesn’t make you healthy, nor does one chocolate bar make you unhealthy. It’s about what you do most of the time.

If you want to cut down on your sugar intake, start small. Pick one thing you can swap or reduce and go from there. Master that, then pick another small thing. Before long you will have made huge changes in small, easy steps.



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