6 Ways to Identify Hidden Sugars in Your Diet
Author: Nina Evans, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/26 July 2018
The current demand for sugar in the UK is two million tonnes per year. The average British adult eats approximately 15 teaspoons (60g) of free sugars per day. This is twice as much as the recommended amount. We know it’s not solely free sugars which are contributing to our ever-increasing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. But it is worth highlighting that even though sugar may not be in the little bowl on our tables anymore, we sure are consuming more than we think! Sugar is frequently hidden in foods. So we often don’t know we’re eating it. Here are 6 ways to help identify and minimise your hidden sugar consumption;
A nutritional claim states a food has particular beneficial nutritional properties. Which may be the case in one sense but not in another. We consider products that are ‘fat free’ or have ‘reduced sugar’ to be the healthy option. Yet they might actually still contain a considerable amount of sugar. A product with a ‘fat free’ claim will contain a very small amount of fat (less than 0.5g per 100g). But in order to maintain texture and taste, will probably be high in sugar. Products stating ‘reduced sugar’, may have 30% less sugar than its regular comparable product, but that doesn’t mean it is low in sugar. Reduced sugar jam still contains approximately 43g sugar per 100g.
Products may not need a nutritional claim for us to think they’re healthy. Common misconceptions would have us believe so. Think of smoothies, agave nectar, and muesli bars. All are marketed as healthy but these products are over-whelmed with sugar. A small bottle of smoothie (250ml) has approximately 26g which is just 1g less than a 250ml can of Coca-Cola. Agave is the ‘natural’ sweetener but it actually contains 66g sugar per 100g. Muesli bars are thought to be the snack of choice for the health conscious, but with 10g sugar per 30g portion, a third of its content – maybe not!
Sugar is a key ingredient for manufacturers as it is relatively cheap, extends shelf life, provides texture, and used ultimately, for taste. Added sugar and therefore sweetness in some products disguise bland flavours which would otherwise make them less popular. Due to these factors, sugar is basically everywhere. Well, 70% of processed foods anyway. The main culprits for hidden sugar in our cupboard staples are bread, breakfast cereal, pre-made sauces (pasta, curry etc.) and condiments. Just remember, it’s not just sweet foods which contain high levels of sugar. If you’re buying foods that have been pre-packaged or processed – make sure to read the label!
Servings per pack
Packaged food often has a nutritional table displaying information per 100g and per serving. The food industry uses the ‘per serving’ information as a common way to hide the amount of sugar in a product. Products will often state servings to be smaller than actuality. This is so products may initially seem low in sugar but in reality, you could be eating two or three times that amount. Be cautious and mindful of how much you are actually eating in comparison to the suggested serving size.
Different names for sugar
Added sugar can be listed as any of the following: sugar, sucrose, fructose, glucose, glucose syrup, maltose, maltodextrin, invert sugar and much more. Just search ‘different names for sugar’ on the internet – mind boggling! Keep your eyes particularly peeled for any ingredient that ends in ‘-ose,’ as chances are, it’s probably sugar.
Added sugar vs. natural sugar
By law, food manufacturers are not required to separate added sugars from natural sugars on food labels. This means only total sugars are presented. This makes it harder to identify those that are naturally occurring or added. There is less of a concern about the impact of natural sugars on our health (especially from vegetables and dairy) than those of free sugars as they are often harder to overconsume and have a higher nutrient density. Regardless of dietary approach, we should consume foods that have less than 5g per 100g of total sugar.
Be wary of nutritional claims on products, low in fat may well be high in sugar.
Don’t assume a ‘health’ food is actually healthy.
Check your cupboard staples! Avoiding, limiting or omitting processed foods will reduce your sugar intake.
Are you eating the suggested serving? Be conscious of how much you are actually eating in comparison to the manufacturer’s serving size.
Sugar may be listed multiple times in the ingredients to hide how much is actually in a product.
Aim to eat products with less than 5g per 100g of sugar as these are classified as a low sugar product.
- AB Sugar. 2016. Sugar demand and the supply in the UK. [Online]. [Accessed 16 July 2018]. Available from: https://www.absugar.com/sugar-markets/uk-sugar-sector
- Food Standards Agency and Public Health England. 2018. NDNS: results from years 7 and 8 (combined). [Online]. [Accessed 16 July]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
- European Commission. [no date]. Nutrition claims. [Online]. [Accessed 16 July 2018]. Available from:
- Popkin, B.M. and Hawkes, C. 2015. Sweetening of the global diet, particularly beverages: patterns, trends, and policy responses. The Lancet. [Online]. 4(2), pp.174-186. [Accessed 23 July 2018]. Available from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landia/article/PIIS2213-8587(15)00419-2/abstract
- HealClemens, R.A., Jones, J.M., Kern, M., Lee, S-Y., Mayhew, E.J., Slavin, J.L. and Zivanovic, S. 2016. Functionality of Sugars in Foods and Health. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. [Online]. 15(3). [Accessed 23 July 2018]. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1541-4337.12194
- National Health Service. 2018. How much sugar is good for me? [Online]. [Accessed 26 July 2018]. Available from: nhs.uk/common-health-questions/food-and-diet/how-much-sugar-is-good-for-me
*nutritional information for products was retrieved from Tesco Groceries. www.tesco.com/groceries