The truth about sugar

General healthy eating recommendations have traditionally included limiting sugary foods and drinks. This is because free sugar is deemed an ‘empty nutrient’ – it provides calories but no nutritional value.

Eating or drinking too much free sugar can contribute to increased body weight and may lead to high cholesterol and triglycerides, and type 2 diabetes.

What are 'free' sugars?

‘Free sugars’ is defined by the World Health Organization as:

“Sugars* added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. It also includes sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.”

Free sugar in foods or drinks adds extra calories to food but no nutrients. It’s easy to have too much because it doesn’t satisfy hunger. Based on the evidence about the detrimental impact of a high sugar diet, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends  people should reduce their intakes of ‘free sugars’ to around 5 per cent of total energy, to gain health benefits. This equates to about six teaspoons for adults and five teaspoons for children.

* Including monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) 

'Added sugar' refers only to the sugar added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer.  They are extracted, concentrated and refined from sources such as sugar cane, fruit, sugar beet, or corn.

What is 'natural' sugar?

Natural (or 'intrinsic') sugars are the naturally occuring sugars found in whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, honey and some grains. However, just because a sugar is 'natural' doesn't always make it a healthy choice. The World Health Organization classifies natural sugars such as honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates as 'free sugars' - the ones we should limit in our diet. These foods are high in kilojoules and provide few vital nutrients and typically little fibre. 

Remember there are naturally occurring sugars in nutritious foods like fruit and plain milk and yoghurt, which do not have the same effect as free sugar. We encourage people to include these as part of a healthy eating pattern. 

Names of sugar

Sugar can be called many different names.

Look out for these common forms of free sugar on the food label

  • Agave nectar
  • Coconut sugar
  • Deionised fruit juice
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice
  • Glucose
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Raw sugar
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Treacle

What can you do to cut back on free sugars?

  • Rather than focusing on single nutrients, we recommend you enjoy a way of eating that focuses mostly on  whole and less-processed foods, as part of a heart healthy diet.
  • Look at what you drink - water is the best drink and it's free. Your taste buds might need a bit of re-educating if you're used to only drinking sweet drinks, but they do get used to the change.  For something a bit more exciting than tap water, you could try bubbly water and add some hints of flavour e.g. lemon or lime slices, mint leaves, or chopped up fruit.  
  • Keep foods or drinks that are high in added sugar for special occasions only e.g. cakes, biscuits, sweet bakery items, juices, lollies, and muffins. Try cutting back on these and replacing them with healthier options like fruit, unsweetened yoghurt, nuts, or check out our recipes for healthier baked options.
  • Use fruit for sweetness instead of adding sugar.  
  • Check the sugar content on food labels, and choose options with less sugar in them.  
  • Choose mostly minimally processed foods with low levels of added sugar. Remember that the ‘per 100g’ information on food labels includes naturally-occurring and added sugar. The ingredient list will show how many types of sugar have been added. Also consider the whole food, as low sugar doesn't necessarily mean healthy overall. 

Based on our evidence paper 'Sugar and the heart' (PDF) we recommend that for general healthy eating and for heart health, adults and children limit the amount of free sugar they eat or drink. In particular, we recommend you cut back on foods or drinks that are high in free sugar, such as soft drinks or cordials, lollies, cakes, biscuits, and similar foods or drinks. 

You can find out further information about 'Sugar and the Heart' by downloading our Q and As below:

Find out what to eat for a healthy heart Sugar and how it affects heart health