The sugar debate

A bowl of sugar

Maya Monteiro is a nutritionist and WCRF’s former Deputy Head of Health Information.

With recent headlines such as “Sweet poison: why sugar is ruining our health” and “Sugar – as dangerous as alcohol and tobacco” it seems that sugar is this year’s hot topic.

Media reports have become more and more dramatic, with some stories claiming that we should cut nearly all sugar from our diets, for example by limiting or avoiding fruits, some vegetables, cereals, bread and even milk.

So, is this another case of media hype or is there any scientific basis for cutting sugar out of our diets?

The first thing to remember is that not all sugar is the same and we need to make a distinction between naturally-occurring sugars and added sugar.

It’s the added sugar in processed foods and drinks such as cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks that are a cause for concern. These foods tend to be high in calories and have little or no nutritional value.

In fact, the evidence shows that these types of foods and drinks lead to weight gain, and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the key ways that people can reduce their cancer risk.

Sugar that occurs in other foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk and starchy foods like bread, rice and pasta is present alongside other nutrients and can be part of a healthy balanced diet.

What about fruit and fruit juice?

There’s no denying that, by its very nature, fruit juice contains sugar. Sugar occurs naturally in fruit and so even a serving of ‘no added sugar’ fruit juice will contain what can seem to be a surprising amount of sugar.

In general, it is much better to eat a whole piece of fruit than have a glass of fruit juice. This is because when you eat a piece of fruit you are consuming fibre alongside the naturally occurring sugars and this bulky fibre helps to fill you up as well as keep your digestive system healthy. Fibre can also help to lower your risk of bowel cancer.

Having said that, fruit juice does contain valuable vitamins and minerals and can count towards your ‘five a day’. But we suggest sticking to one small (150ml) glass a day.

Sugary drinks

Sugary drinks include squashes and fizzy drinks such as cola and lemonade. We would recommend avoiding these drinks as they can contain a lot of sugar and usually have little (or no) nutritional value.

There is also strong evidence that having these drinks regularly can contribute to weight gain as they are easy to drink in large quantities (and are often available in ‘super-sized’ portions) but don’t make us feel full even though they are high in calories.

Instead of sugary drinks, swap to unsweetened tea or coffee or try some water with a slice of lemon, lime or cucumber.

Processed foods

Processed foods such as sweets, cakes and biscuits can contain hidden sugars that manufacturers add to make the food taste better.

Sometimes unexpected foods (that don’t taste sweet) contain sugar, such as tinned soups or ready meals. Some breakfast cereals can also be high in added sugar.

Checking the list of ingredients can help us to see how sugary a food is. Manufacturers have many different names for sugar including dextrose, sucrose, glucose, maltose, fructose, hydrolysed starch, corn syrup, maize syrup, molasses, raw or brown sugar, treacle, honey and concentrated fruit juice.

As a rule of thumb, if any of these appear at the beginning of the ingredients list then the product is likely to be high in sugar.

What about bread and other starchy foods?

Bread and other starchy foods such as rice, potatoes and pasta have been identified as sources of sugar in some articles.

These foods do contain naturally-occurring sugar but they aren’t considered ‘sugary’ foods. In fact, they are an important source of many nutrients including B vitamins and fibre, and we certainly wouldn’t recommend cutting them out of your diet.

The best thing you can do is to choose wholegrain versions of these foods (which contain more fibre and other nutrients) like brown rice and wholemeal pasta and eat them in moderation along with vegetables, pulses and lean sources of protein.

What about milk?

Milk also contains some naturally-occurring sugar, but it contains calcium too, which is vital to help to keep our bones healthy. It’s a healthy choice as part of a balanced diet. Choose semi-skimmed or skimmed whenever possible.

Is sugar bad for you aside from the calories it can add to your diet?

There’s no strong evidence to link sugar directly with cancer. However, we do know that having a lot of sugar in our diets can lead to weight gain, and being overweight increases our risk of cancer.

Why all the media attention?

Some of the media attention sugar has been receiving has been to do with the setting up of Action on Sugar – a group of specialists who are working with the government and the food industry to bring about a reduction in the amount of sugar in processed foods.

How much sugar should we be having?

Current advice is that added sugar, also known as ‘free sugar’ should make up no more than 5 per cent of your daily calorie intake – that’s around 30g each day (equivalent to around 7 sugar cubes) for adults.

As a nation we currently consume more than this, in part due to our high consumption of processed foods, which are high in both fat and sugar.

Should I cut out sugar?

Although many media reports seem to be targeting sugar in general as something we should be avoiding for the good of our health, the evidence shows that rather than cutting out all foods with any type of sugar in them, we should cut down our intake of processed foods and try to avoid sugary drinks.

By following this advice, being regularly physically active and eating well can help to maintain a healthy weight which helps reduce your cancer risk.

Find out more about eating well and reducing cancer risk.