Eating sugar in excess is not healthy and World Health Organization guidelines recommend that we reduce the amount of sugar in our diets.
Sugar hides in much of the processed foods we buy, so we can consume too much without even knowing it.
Too much sugar means too many calories which leads to weight gain. This all adds up to increased risk of obesity and serious illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
(Royal Society Te Apārangi, NZ, 2016)
How much sugar is too much?
Nutrition labels tell you how much sugar a food contains. Food that has 15g or more per 100g is considered high in sugar. Anything under 5g of total sugar per 100g is low.
The World Health Organization recommends having no more than 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. That is around 50g (1 teaspoon = 4g of sugar). On average, this is about half the amount of sugar an adult currently consumes daily, with most of us averaging around 37 teaspoons of sugar in what what we eat and drink.
Children should ideally consume no more than 3–4 teaspoons per day. However the 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey found the average daily intake for boys was 67g (17 teaspoons) and for girls was 61g (15 teaspoons)
What sugars should we avoid?
Foods that contain free sugars are the ones we should be cutting down on. Free sugars include any sugar that’s added to a product by manufacturers, cooks or consumers or the sugar naturally present in syrups, honey and fruit juices. It doesn’t include sugars in dairy products.
(British Heart Foundation NZ, NZ, 2019)
Sugar can be called many different names. Look for these common free sugars on ingredients labels:
- Agave nectar
- Coconut sugar
- Deionised fruit juice
- Fruit juice
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Rice malt syrup
You can use this sugar calculator for a quick check on how much sugar is in some of the everyday food and drink your child might have. You'll be surprised how quickly it can add up!
(BBC, UK, 2017)
Tips to decrease sugar intake
Here are some simple tips to help you gradually cut down on the amount of added sugar in your diet.
Nearly a quarter of the added sugar in our diets comes from sugary drinks such as fizzy drinks, juices and cordials. For example, a 600ml bottle of fizzy drink contains around 16 teaspoons of sugar. So one 600ml bottle of fizzy contains the total daily sugar allowance for an adult plus a quarter more. Fruit drinks may seem healthy but are very high in added sugar. Check out this poster showing you how much sugar is in different drinks. A 500ml bottle of cola contains the equivalent of 17 cubes of sugar.
Consuming sugary drinks increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay in children and adults. Children who drink one or more sugary drinks per day are 50–60% more likely to be overweight or obese than kids who don't.
Here are some ways you can cut back on sugary drinks:
- Choose water or milk over juice or fizzy. Stop buying it at the supermarket, so you don't have it in your home.
- Send your child to school or sports with a re-usable drink bottle they can refill with water.
- Eat your fruit, don't drink it. If you want to drink juice, choose the real stuff (‘fruit juice’ not ‘fruit drink’) and dilute it: 1 part juice to 10 parts water. Try mixing soda water with juice for a healthy fizzy drink.
- If you take sugar in hot drinks try to cut back gradually – small steps may hurt less than cold turkey. If you can't kick the habit, try artificial sweeteners.
- Herbal teas are flavoursome alternatives without any added sugar.
- Watch out for takeaway drinks, choose water instead.
- Offer non-sugary options if people are coming around or if you are preparing family meals.
- Cut back on sugary alcoholic drinks. Be careful what you mix your alcohol with as some fizzy drinks or sodas will increase your sugar intake.
- Read labels and be wary of ‘healthy’ claims. Many drinks such as pre-packaged smoothies are high in sugar so always check the nutrition labels.
- Get your community involved by asking your school or sports club to remove sugary drink options from vending machines.
Many breakfast cereals are high in sugar. Read the nutrition label and choose only products that have less than 15g or less of sugar per 100g.
- Porridge oats are cheap, nourishing and naturally low in sugar.
- Break the sugar habit. Try sprinkling a little cinnamon or adding fresh fruit to your breakfast cereals instead of sugar.
- Avoid flavoured or fruit yoghurts which can be high in sugar. instead, buy (or make) plain, unsweetened yoghurt and add your own berries (use frozen ones in winter) to flavour it.
- Choose toast spreads that are low in sugar, such as marmite/vegemite, peanut butter (check label for added sugar) or low-sugar jams. If you can't resist jam, honey, chocolate spread or marmalade, try to reduce the amount you use.
Main meals and desserts
Remember, high sugar = 15g or more per 100g food, low sugar = 5g or less per 100g food. Write it down and pop it in your wallet to retrieve when you're grocery shopping, or bookmark this page on your cell phone.
- Sugar on your pasta?! You bet – 150g of pasta sauce can contain 3 tsp of sugar. Sugar is often added for flavour to ready-made sauces, soups and meals.
- Condiments and sauces such as tomato or chilli sauce can have as much as 23g of sugar in 100g. This can add up over the course of a day.
- Do you need to have dessert every day? Try reducing the amount of dessert you have, or how often you have it. Desserts low in added sugar include fruit (fresh, frozen, or tinned – but choose those canned in juice rather than syrup), rice pudding and plain unsweetened yoghurt. Try a few squares of dark chocolate for a satisfying post-dinner treat.
Rethink your approach to snacks. Do you have to have chocolate, biscuits and cake every day? Why not try reaching for a healthier option first?
- Try healthier snack options without added sugar such as vegetable sticks and hummus, unsalted nuts, unsalted rice crackers or homemade plain popcorn.
- Can't resist that sticky slice? Cut it in half and offer it round, or save it for the next day.
- Think twice before you surrender to that great ‘2 for 1′ deal or value pack offer where you pay slightly more for a great deal more sugar, fat and kilojoules.
- Think about switching to other ways to sweeten your cooking, eg, dates for baking, stevia, rice malt sugar, etc.
For healthy meal ideas for different diets check out our healthy recipes library including healthy recipes for tamariki.
The truth about sugar Heart Foundation NZ
Sugar – videos Health Navigator NZ
How to understand food labels Eat For Health, Australian Government
Healthy diet World Health Organisation, 2020
Sugar NZ Nutrition Foundation, 2022
The role of sugar in the diet of New Zealanders NZ Nutrition Foundation, 2014
Sugary drinks Toi Te Ora NZ, 2021