The Diet Therapist


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Confused about


What are 'free' sugars?

Do you know what kinds of sugar count in the revised guidelines on

sugar consumption? 

Posted by The Diet Therapist, 18th February 2017

Sugar really has hit the headlines over the last couple of years and practically every week we know see articles on how too much of the “sweet poison” can have a negative impact on health.  We know that excess sugar intake contributes to national rates of obesity and type II diabetes, and may potentially have an impact on the management of a huge range of other chronic diseases (via its effect on inflammation and other metabolic pathways).


Many years after Professor John Yudkin proposed that excess sugar in the diet might be hazardous to public health (1957 and later in his book “Pure, White and Deadly” in 1972) other biochemists, doctors, and nutrition researchers have begin to highlight the dangers of high sugar intake. Dr Robert Lustig’s video talk at the University of California “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has become a YouTube sensation. In it he highlights the impact of sugar (and specifically excess concentrated fructose) on the endocrine system and how it affects our biochemistry and the physiological mechanisms implicated in obesity. This became a YouTube sensation in 2009 (and you can watch this here >) but despite many researchers, celebrities, journalists and organisations adding their voice to the debate (Jamie Oliver and ‘Action on Sugar’ have done a huge amount to raise awareness and effect policy change) – lots of people are still confused.  The World Health Organisation recommends that daily intake of ‘free sugar’ should be less than 10% of total energy intake, and that we should aim for a maximum of around 25g/day or not more than 6 teaspoons of free sugars each day.


In 2015, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advised the government to halve the recommended intake of “free sugars” to help address the growing rates of obesity and diabetes in the UK and also to reduce the risk of tooth decay.  Their report, “Carbohydrates and Health” was in response to a request by the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency to examine recent evidence on associations between carbohydrate, starch, sugar and fibre consumption and a range of health outcomes.


In this report, the Nutritionists recommended limiting the daily recommended intake of free sugars to no more than 5% of daily energy intake (in line with the WHO later recommendations for improved health outcomes). This translates to:


  • 19g (3-5 teaspoons) for children aged 4 – 6 years

  • 24g (4-6 teaspoons) for children aged between 7 – 10 years

  • 30 g (5-7 teaspoons) for 11+ children/adults


However, I often see clients who are confused about what sugars “count” towards this.


Although most people have got the message that “too much sugar is ‘bad for you’” – many still don’t understand the difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, or how different types are metabolised.  


‘NATURALLY OCCURRING’ & ‘FREE’ or ‘ADDED’ SUGARS: what’s the difference?


At a basic level, when we encounter sugars in foods they are either “naturally occurring” (e.g. found in wholefoods such as fruits, vegetables, some grains and dairy), or “added sugars” which are used in packaged food for lots of reasons: obviously to enhance flavour and give “sweetness,” but also to improve structure and texture, give a medium for yeast reactions in baked products, or control crystallisation.


There is no actual chemical difference between naturally occurring and added sugars; they have to be metabolised using the same enzymes and processes.  But the amount and form in which we consume the sugars and the types of sugars themselves are thought to makes a big difference to how quickly your body absorbs them, their metabolic effects, and how full you are (affecting how much of these foods you eat).

More on this here >


What about TOTAL SUGARS on food packaging? What does that mean?


The amount of total sugar refers to the total amount of sugar in a product, regardless of source.  So looking at the label of Sainsbury’s Greek Yoghurt below, we can see that the amount of total sugars per 100g serving is 5.2g. This is from the naturally occurring sugar lactose in the yoghurt.


On the other hand, a brands of fruit flavoured yoghurt I looked at had 15.3g per 100g, (the second ingredient is sugar), so about 10g is likely to be “added sugar.”


It’s pretty much impossible to tell from a packaging label how much of the sugar in a product is “free” or “naturally occurring,” which is partly why these have been called “hidden” sugars. 


When you read recommendations about limiting your “free sugar” intake to under 25g (approx. 6 teaspoons) a day, this refers to sugars added to food or drinks (i.e. soft drinks, biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, cereal bars, ready made sauces, and sweetened yoghurts) and also to those found naturally in fruit juice, honey, syrups (rice, date, maple, agave), or other “natural” sugars like coconut or palm sugar.


So if you made a “healthy” cake with honey instead of refined white sugar – this is not “sugar-free.”


That would mean the cake has a total of approximately 139g of added sugar from the honey, and each slice has about 17.4g sugar contributing about 70% your “free sugar” intake for the day.

Why aren’t “naturally-occurring” sugars counted as “added/free” sugars?


Sugars that are naturally present in milk and milk products, and in the cellular structure of fruits, vegetables and grains are found accompanied by fibre (or protein in the case of dairy), which slows down absorption and alters the way that they are metabolised.    


Sugars that don’t count as free sugars:


- lactose in milk and dairy produce

- sugar naturally present in fruit (including canned, frozen, dried, stewed)

- sugar naturally present in vegetables

- sugar naturally present in grains and various cereals