FREE SUGARS! (Not really, they’re the ones we should be eating less of)

With the arrival of #sugarfreefeb it’s a good time to talk about sugar, because it seems like we’re still a bit confused.

Why talk about sugar?

The government wants us to eat fewer free sugars. The latest guidelines say no more than 5% of our daily calories should come from free sugars.

But what on earth is a free sugar? And why should we eat less of them?

First, the basics.

Despite what the name suggests, free sugars aren’t actually ones you can eat freely.

Free sugars are ones we should be eating less of.

You can think of them as sugars that are freely added to foods by the manufacturer or by yourself, PLUS sugars naturally found in honey, syrup and fruit juice.

Free sugars include fruit juice, because the sugars are ‘freed’ from the fruit during the juicing process.

Other sugars (found in milk and whole fruit) are attached to the structure of the food, so they don’t count as free sugars. They are sometimes called ‘intrinsic’ or ‘naturally occurring’ sugars. They aren’t ones to worry about because there’s little evidence they cause health issues.

If you looks at the label on a pot of natural yogurt you will see it contains around 7 grams of sugars per 100 grams, but none of those are free sugars. They are naturally occurring.

Same with a tin of tomatoes – per 100 grams – 3 grams of sugars. Not free sugars, naturally occurring.

Free sugars (eat less) 


Not free sugars (no restriction) 


Maple syrup, agave, molasses, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar Fresh fruit e.g. Bananas, orange
Honey Dried fruit – sultanas, dates
White sugar, brown sugar, m Milk
Fruit juice Plain yoghurt
Sugar in chocolate, cakes, biscuits, buns, jams, spreads, and added to yoghurt and milk drinks like chocolate milk Vegetables e.g. canned tomatoes

Why should we eat fewer free sugars?

In 2015 SACN (a scientific body of experts who advise the government on nutrition) recommended we halve our intake of free sugars from 10% to 5% (note – we don’t even manage the 10% at the moment).

Why? Firstly because eating lots of free sugars is linked to tooth decay.

Secondly because SACN concluded eating lots of free sugars = higher calorie intake = overweight and obesity. Eating less sugar should therefore help us cut calories, and in turn lose weight (if we need to).

How so? Well, the evidence for sugars and body weight is mixed, but some studies show free sugars (especially in liquid form like fizzy drinks) aren’t very filling. Yes they taste nice, but they’re rewarding and easy to overeat. 

When combined with fat (think cake, chocolate), sugars are especially easy to overeat.

On a more practical level, if you eat a mars bar (260 calories), you probably won’t feel full and will end up rooting around for something else an hour later.

If however you ate a slice of wholegrain toast with a small banana and a teaspoon of peanut butter (also 260 calories) you’ll feel fuller for longer and less likely to go rooting for biscuits.

Basically there are more filling ways to spend your calories than sugar – fibre and protein being two of them.

This is why eating a piece of whole fruit is more satiating (filling) than drinking the same calories from fruit juice. It’s the fibre.

From my own experience with clients, it’s swapping the big-ticket sugary items (like a chocolate bar for a handful of nuts, or sugary breakfast cereal for boiled eggs) which makes the biggest difference to how hungry they feel and how they manage their calorie intake.

The little drizzle of honey on porridge oats (36 cals) is not the bad guy.

So what’s the limit?

SACN say free sugars should contribute no more than 5% of our daily calories. So if you’re eating 2000 calories, that’s a maximum of 100 calories from free sugars.

Sugars contain 4 calories per gram so 100 divided by 4 = 25 grams, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar.

So that’s a maximum of 25 grams of free sugars. So far so good (although studies suggest achieving this 5% target is tough, with even the experts failing to achieve it).

The hard bit comes when you try to count them… because food labels don’t list free sugars, they list total sugars.

Confused? Yep, it’s no wonder.

Stay tuned, I’ll follow up with food labelling in part 2…


Image designed by mrsiraphol at Freepik