When it comes to being conscious of the amount of sugar you’re consuming, you’re probably well aware that you should try to only eat cakes, ice cream, lollies, and soft drinks on the odd occasion.
These sources of added sugar are pretty obvious, but they’re not the only ones that you need to be aware of! Many other foods that are considered healthy or even savoury can often still contain hidden sugars.
If you already have a good understanding of why too much sugar is bad for you, the next step to reducing the impacts of sugar is to find out the recommended daily limit of sugar, the difference between natural vs added sugar, as well as the many different names for sugar that you’ll see lurking on your food labels.
We’ve come up with a guide below to cover all of these commonly asked questions, so you can reduce the damage being done to your teeth and overall health.
- Why is too much sugar bad for you?
- How much sugar should you eat per day?
- What’s the difference between natural and added sugar?
- List of different names for sugar
- Foods that contain hidden sugars
- How to protect your teeth from sugar
1. Why is too much sugar bad for you?
Sugar is a carbohydrate, a nutrient that the body needs to create energy. It does so by breaking down carbs into simple sugar such as glucose, that can be easily used by the body for fuel. Eating too much sugar causes our bodies to store the excess energy we consume as fat, which can result in becoming overweight. Obesity can lead to a greater risk of developing health issues such as heart disease and some types of cancers, as well as Type 2 diabetes. Some types of sugar have also been linked to hypertension, insomnia and metabolic syndrome, among others.
On top of all the negative effects on the body, sugar also has a significant impact on your teeth, and can cause tooth decay. Tooth decay occurs when bacteria that live on the teeth multiply by feeding on the sugars we consume, which produces acids that eat away at the tooth enamel and drain its minerals. If this continues, the teeth become weak and eventually cavities (holes) in the teeth begin to appear, which may need to be treated with fillings. When decay gets to the centre of the tooth, it can lead to a tooth infection or dental abscess that must be treated, otherwise the tooth may need to be removed. This process occurs faster by eating more sugar, more frequently. Children are more likely to suffer from tooth decay, as their tooth enamel isn’t as strong as an adult’s, and they usually consume more sugar.
High sugar foods are also unhealthy as they usually don’t contain any other nutrients the body needs aside from carbohydrates, such as protein, vitamins and minerals.
2. How much sugar should you eat per day?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that the average adult consume a maximum of 24 grams (approximately 6 teaspoons) of added sugar every day.
When reading the nutritional labels on packaged foods, it’s important to keep these tips in mind:
- Foods that contain over 15g of sugar per 100g serve are considered high in added sugar and should be avoided. The best options are foods with less than 5g of sugar per 100g
- Ingredients are listed on packaging in order of weight, so the closer the ingredients are at the beginning of the list, the more of it is in the food
- If the different names for sugar (listed below) appear several times in the ingredients list, or are listed as one of the first four ingredients, it is likely that the food contains a high amount of added sugar.
3. What’s the difference between natural and added sugar?
Not only is it important to be aware of how much sugar you’re consuming, but also the type of sugar, as they’re not all equal. Some food products such as fruit or dairy contain natural sugars, which are sugars that originate naturally in these whole, unprocessed foods. These foods also contain healthy nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals, meaning they still offer nutritional benefits as part of a healthy diet. Fructose is the natural sugar found in fruit, and lactose is the natural sugar found in dairy such as milk and plain yoghurt.
On the other hand, added sugar refers to those that are added to processed foods, during cooking or before serving. These sugars often provide no nutritional value.
Therefore, although both natural and added sugars can lead to tooth decay, foods containing natural sugar are, most of the time, generally healthier than processed foods with added sugar. It’s important to note though, that when a food label states it contains ‘no added sugar,’ it may still have a significant amount of natural sugar, which should still be consumed in moderation to protect your teeth. Also, fruits which are blended or juiced actually free the sugar from its bonds, making it more likely to damage the enamel on teeth.
4. List of different names for sugar
When keeping an eye out for added sugars in packaged foods, it’s not as simple as just looking for the word ‘sugar’. Often, it’s listed under names that aren’t as obvious, with there actually being over 50 ingredients that are another name for sugar.
The most common names for sugar you’ll see on nutrition labels include:
- Barley malt syrup
- Birch syrup
- Blackstrap molasses
- Brown rice syrup
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice
- Cane sugar
- Cane sugar extract
- Caster sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Coffee crystals
- Corn sugar
- Date sugar
- Demerara sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Fruit sugar
- Glucose syrup
- Golden syrup
- Grape juice concentrate
- Grape sugar
- Icing sugar
- Invert sugar (preferred by bakers)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Malt extract
- Maple syrup
- Palm sugar
- Pear juice concentrate
- Raw sugar
- Rice malt syrup
- Turbinado sugar
- White sugar
Artificial sweeteners should also be consumed in moderation, as they can still actually cause obesity. They stimulate hunger by tricking the body into believing it’s going to receive food, but then when it doesn’t, it increases hunger. The same goes for Stevia, a ‘natural’ sweetener, because the body’s reaction to the taste of sweetness gives it the impression that an energy hit is on the way, when in fact there aren’t the same amount of calories in these sweeteners compared to actual sugar.
Artificially sweetened drinks (diet soft drinks) are also still bad for your oral health, as their high acidity levels wear down the enamel on your teeth.
Common artificial sweeteners listed on food labels include:
- Aspartame (Equal)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Acesulfame K
Instead of replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners, it’s much better in the long run to learn how to stop your sugar cravings instead.
5. Foods that contain hidden sugars
Now that you know the difference between added sugar vs natural sugar, you probably have an idea of which foods to limit in your diet – as much as we all love them, obviously eating a tub of ice cream, a packet of Pods and a block of chocolate every night isn’t the best for your body and teeth!
But, added sugars are also lurking in foods you’d least expect, ones that aren’t really considered to be “sweet”. This is the unfortunate reality of living in a world where food is now more processed than ever before.
Some of the foods that you need to be mindful of when trying to eat less added sugar include:
Dairy that has had the fat removed often needs to have something else added to replace the missing flavour, and in most cases this is sugar, for example in low-fat yoghurt. Instead, try adding fresh fruit, vanilla or cinnamon to full-fat yoghurt to reduce sugar intake and sugar cravings.
In terms of cow’s milk, full-cream and skim milk usually have similar levels of lactose, whereas with plant-based milks such as soy or almond milk, the regular and flavoured versions have added sugar so it’s best to choose the unsweetened alternatives.
In addition to unsweetened dairy, there are also a number of dairy-free sources of calcium that will help strengthen your teeth.
When baking bread, sugar is included in the fermentation process as starch is broken down and ingested by yeast, which causes the bread to rise. Sugar may also be added to improve the taste and texture of the bread, and to create a golden crust on the surface of the bread.
Wholemeal bread also often has added sugar to counteract the bitter flavour of whole wheat, so if it comes in a packet, make sure you check if there’s been sugar added.
Tomato, barbecue and sweet chilli sauces are some of the worst condiment choices when it comes to added sugars, containing anywhere up to 2 teaspoons of added sugar per 15ml serve. Again, if sugar is appearing in the first 3 – 4 ingredients on the list, it most likely is a sauce with far too much added sugar.
Stir fry sauces, salad dressings, pizza and pasta sauces can also be guilty of hiding added sugars too, so make sure you compare brands when doing your grocery shopping, or make your own.
In the realm of breakfast foods, cereals like Coco Pops and Froot Loops are clearly very sweet, but often people don’t realise that “healthy” cereals like muesli and granola can also be high in sugar. They are frequently sweetened with honey and maple syrup, or dried fruits such as sultanas.
Be conscious of this when buying cereal, or alternatively a better option is to make your own using seeds, grains and nuts, so you can control exactly what’s going into the mix.
Despite being thought of as a savoury snack, crackers are actually frequently enhanced with added sugars to improve their flavour. Try to avoid strongly flavoured crackers, and opt for plain rice crackers, corn thins or rice cakes instead. You can further add nutritional value by topping them with protein such as cottage cheese, egg or turkey breast for a satisfying snack.
Beans are a fantastic source of fibre and protein, but when they come packaged as baked beans in a tin, they unfortunately also feature a high amount of sugar in the tomato sauce, with half a cup serving containing up to 1 – 2 teaspoons of added sugar.
Instead, make your own beans in sauce so you can control the ingredients, which is a super affordable and healthier option.
When sushi is being prepared, sugar is added to the rice to enhance the taste, with up to a tablespoon being included into a cup of sushi rice in some cases. Be mindful of this when ordering at restaurants, or when making at home, reduce the amount of sugar you use.
Also limit the amount of sauces you choose, such as teriyaki or mayonnaise, which can also contain a significant amount of sugar.
Becoming aware of the differing amount of added sugar between different alcohol will help you make better choices when the time comes to enjoy a few bevvies with your friends!
Cocktails contain the highest amount of sugar, especially those that are made with sugar syrup, juice or soft drink. Pre-mixed spirits, like rum and cola or flavoured vodka are the next worst choice, with some containing up to 9 teaspoons of sugar per serve. When comparing wines, red wine contains less sugar than white or sparkling wines.
The alcoholic drink with the least amount of added sugar and calories are spirits mixed with soda water, with fresh lime, lemon, cucumber or mint.
A common misconception is that tonic water and soda water are the same thing, when in fact soda water is unsweetened, while tonic water contains a lot of added sugar. This means that your much loved G&T could have a teaspoon of sugar in each serve, so it’s best to substitute the tonic water with soda water instead.
6. How to protect your teeth from sugar
In addition to making healthier choices when making or buying food, to reduce the impact of sugar on your enamel it’s important to practice preventative dentistry at home by brushing with fluoride toothpaste twice a day and flossing daily, as well as visiting your dentist every 6 months for a check-up and clean. This will ensure your teeth are in their best condition, and will allow your dentist to catch any problems early, before they have the chance to become worse.