Why is sugar bad for you, and what is the recommended daily allowance? We explain common hidden sources of sugar and easy ways to cut back on your intake.

Granulated sugar and sugar cubes in bowls

There is increasing research to suggest that it's the sugar rather than the fat in our diets that is the major contributing factor to our obesity epidemic. Nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens explains the 'hidden' sugar you may not know you're eating and how to spot it on food labels…

How much sugar should I be eating?

Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in a host of different foods, from lactose in milk to fructose in fruit and honey. There are two types of sugar: naturally occurring sugar (such as the lactose in milk) and added or 'free' sugars that include refined table sugar (sucrose) as well as concentrated sources like fruit juice, honey and syrups. Health organisations including the NHS advise we cut back on these 'free sugars'.

The new recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK's official nutrition advisors are that only 5% of your daily calorie intake should consist of added, or 'free' sugars. This equates to approximately seven sugar cubes (30g). Children should have less – no more than 19g a day for children aged 4-6 years old (five sugar cubes), and no more than 24g (six sugar cubes) for children aged 7-10 years old.

Why is sugar bad for you?

If you're very active and exercise regularly some sugar in your diet helps supply ready energy to fuel your muscles and keep your brain active. The problem for the majority of us is that many of the processed foods we eat – in particular, those marketed to children – have added sugar that supplies energy in the form of calories, and very little else, so we end up consuming more than we need. A high intake of sugar causes our blood sugar levels to shoot up, giving us that feel-good 'high' followed by a crashing slump that leaves us tired, irritable and craving more sugary foods. It's a vicious cycle that may be contributing to our weight problems as well as health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

In recognition of these issues, the government has released guidelines for the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar in packaged products.

A cupcake topped with chocolate icing which has been dropped on the floor

Hidden sources of sugar

The instant 'lift' we get from sugar is one of the reasons we turn to it at times of celebration, or when we crave comfort or reward. However, even those of us without a sweet tooth may be eating more than we realise because so many everyday processed foods, from cereals and bread to pasta sauce and soups, contain sugar.

  • 'Low-fat' and 'diet' foods often contain extra sugar to help improve their taste and palatability and to add bulk and texture in place of fat.
  • Even savoury foods, like ready-made soups and sauces may contain added sugar.
  • A can of soft drink, on average, contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar.
  • The natural sugar in some fruit, including apples, has increased as new varieties (including Pink Lady, Fuji and Jazz) are bred to satisfy our desire for greater sweetness.

Three cans of soft drinks surrounded by sugar cubes

Look on the label

Discover how much sugar is in your food by doing these simple checks:

  • Look at the 'carbs as sugars' on the nutrition panel. This includes both natural and added sugars. Less than 5g per 100g is low, more than 22.5g per 100g is high.
  • Check the ingredients list for anything ending in 'ose' (glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose). These are all forms of sugar, as are honey, agave, molasses and syrups like corn and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredients list these are, the more sugar the product contains.
  • Know your substitute. For example, xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol. These occur naturally in small amounts in plants and fruits and are often used in low-calorie products to provide sweetness but with fewer calories. Xylitol can be used in home baking as a replacement for regular sugar (ratio 1:1) although your bakes won't brown as much and xylitol can't be used where yeast is the raising agent.

Food nutrition labels with a magnifying glass and calculator

Ways to cut down on sugar

Making a few adjustments to your diet can help you cut down on unnecessary sugar consumption:

  • Reduce the sugar you add to hot drinks. Do so gradually to give your tastebuds time to adjust. Try adding a sprinkle of cinnamon to cappuccino or hot chocolate. Cinnamon has several health benefits and adds flavour without the sweetness.
  • Avoid low-fat 'diet' foods which tend to be high in sugars. Instead have smaller portions of the regular versions.
  • Be wary of 'sugar-free' foods. These often contain artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame. Although these taste sweet, research suggests that they don't help curb a sweet tooth so they tend to send confusing messages to the brain and that can lead to over-eating.
  • Balance your carb intake with lean protein like fish, chicken and turkey. Protein foods slow stomach emptying which helps manage cravings. Try our tuna, asparagus & white bean salad.
  • Swap white bread, rice and pasta for wholegrain versions like oats, granary and wholemeal breads, brown rice and pasta. Try our mixed seed bread.
  • Reduce the sugar in recipes and add spices to boost flavour and taste. Try our spiced apple pie.
  • Stick to one glass of fruit juice a day (dilute it and enjoy with a meal to protect your teeth) and keep sweet soft drinks and alcohol for the weekends. Enjoy herbal teas or water with slices of citrus fruits for flavouring. Learn more about the health benefits of lemon water.
  • For a pick-me-up, have a piece of whole fruit with a handful of nuts or a small tub of plain yogurt. Both contain protein which helps balance blood sugar and energy levels. Try our cinnamon cashew spread with apple slices, or our berry yogurt pots.

Useful resources for cutting down on sugar:

Davina McCall: How to be sugar-free

Our favourite lower sugar recipes

BBC Good Food's guide to sugar-free baking

Like this? Now read…

10 things you should know before giving up sugar

All you need to know about sugar

More health & nutrition tips


This article was last reviewed on 25 July 2017 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts, find all the answers in our sugar hub.