Here at Just Food we think it’s time to add some clarity to all of the discussion about sugars in foods. We know that we consume too much free sugar as a nation, and we need to change this. The sugar that the WHO is focussing attention on is what is termed “free sugar”. Unfortunately, a lot of well publicised programmes in Ireland have confused “free sugars” with other naturally occurring sugars in foods (which the WHO explicitly excludes from its guidelines, as this these not an issue), and lumped them together: not altogether helpful.
We have come up with some Q & As below, which we think will be helpful for those trying to get a better understanding of the different sugars in foods, and thus of what is best to eat for optimum health for yourselves and your families.
- What is the guideline on “Free Sugar”?
The WHO guideline states that we should consume no more than six teaspoons of “Free sugar” (or 25g) per day, for optimum health (so we should not consume these sugars freely, despite their name).
- What are “Free sugars”?
Free sugars’ comprise all monosaccharides (glucose & fructose) and disaccharides (sucrose) added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.
- What about the other sugars, that are not “Free sugars”?
While we need to limit our “Free sugars” in the guideline, the WHO have said that “lactose (the sugar in milk), when naturally present in milk and milk products, and the sugars naturally contained within the cellular structure of foods (particularly fruits and vegetables) are excluded”. These sugars are deemed to contribute positively to our health, and can form a significant part of our diets. (For example, one whole ripe tomato contains approx 3 g of sugars, none of which are free sugars). So, sugars that are naturally occurring in many foods to a greater or lesser extent (more natural sugar in tomatoes than in lentils for example) are excluded. Therefore, not all sugars are equal, in terms of impact on our health. So it is very important to be aware of the type of sugars in foods that you and your family are consuming.
- Is “Free sugar” the same as “Added sugar”?
While free sugar and added sugar are often used interchangeably, they are actually different. Added sugar refers to any sugar such as cane sugar, glucose etc added in the processing/cooking process to a recipe. Therefore, while a product may have no added sugar, it may still contain free sugar (as in the case of fruit juice smoothies for example). So, while added sugar is always free sugar, free sugar may not necessarily be added sugar.
- Why is the fruit in a “100% fruit, no added sugar, fruit juice” all counted as “free sugar?
As the fruit (for example apple) in the fruit juice is put through a juicer, most of the fibre is removed, so the apple juice is no longer contained within the cellular structure of the apple. With a significant part of the apple removed (and related micronutrients), the juice remaining will be processed through your system much more quickly, and will deliver less benefits than eating the whole fruit.
- Can I easily see how much “free sugar” is in a product from the nutritional label?
In short, no. And this is where a lot of confusion is coming from. Under EU law, total sugars (both free and all other) are included and declared as carbohydrates on product packaging, as follows (per 100g):
Carbohydrates say for eg 9g
Of which sugars say for eg 3g
So, all sugars are reported as one number. This number could then be made up of a variety of different sugars, depending on the food product (e.g. a fruit yogurt may contain lactose which is not free sugar, and whole fruit sugar which is not free sugar, and added sugar which is free sugar).
Therefore, to be clear, current food labels in Ireland & EU show Total Sugars in grams, and there is no requirement to show Free sugars in grams. So simply looking at the Sugars in grams on a product will not tell you how much (if any) of these sugars are free sugars. To assume Total sugars are equivalent to Free sugars is inaccurate.
- How do I know if there is free sugar in a product?
If the list of ingredients doesn’t contain added sugar in any guise (there are about fifty names for different sugar varieties, such as dextrose, rice syrup, corn syrup, jaggery etc. : it pays to have some familiarity with these names), or doesn’t contain any added fruit juices, then the product will contain no free sugar. You can then assume that all of the sugars declared on the label are derived from sugars from milk and/or from vegetables and fruit in their cellular form, and from other foods which naturally contain sugar but in smaller amounts (eg. in beans, pulses).
- If there is free sugar in a product, how can I calculate how much of the Sugars total is made up of Free sugar?
Assuming you have established that there is free sugar in the product (see above), there are a number of clues on the label that can help you to estimate how much free sugar is in the product. Looking at the ingredient list, the higher up on the list that an ingredient is listed, the more there is of that ingredient, so if for example sucrose is listed after flour and before eggs, it means that the product contains more sucrose than eggs (and more flour than sucrose). There may be more than one type of free sugar in a product (so you will need to take this into account). If the ingredient list contains lots of vegetables, fruits etc, (not fruits juices) which are high up on the list, and any free sugars are very low down on ingredients list (near spices, seasoning etc), this would indicate that a lot of the sugars (which are declared on the packaging) are derived from these ingredients, so most of the sugars can be deduced to be other sugars, as opposed to free sugars. You can compare the sugar content of similar products with sugar and without sugar, eg fruit yogurt, vs plain yogurt (no added sugar), to establish roughly how much sugar is attributable to the added sugar. (See examples in no. 9 below)
- Can I have some examples of “free sugar” contents of common foods?
100 grams of whole apple = 10 g total sugar (= 2.5 tsp) none of which is free sugar
100 grams of apple juice = 10 g total sugar, all of which is free sugar
1 medium banana = 14 g sugar, none of which is free sugar
100 ml of whole milk = 4.7 g sugar, all lactose, so none of which is free sugar
100 grams of celery = 1.7 g sugar, none of which is free sugar
I medium tomato = 3.25 g sugar, none of which is free sugar
100 g of cooked lentils = 2 g sugar, none of which is free sugar
- Can I download an app that will tell me the amount of free sugar in the prepared products that I buy in the supermarket?
While there are apps available (such as the Sugar Smart app from the App store), all of these apps will only tell you the no of grams of total sugar in a product, and not the Free sugar, hence they can be misleading as they can imply that all sugars are subject to the six teaspoon daily limit. This total sugar information can easily be found at the back of the packaging already.
- Do all prepared foods I buy in the supermarket contain free sugars?
While it may appear that all prepared foods bought in the supermarket contain free sugars, this is not in fact the case. Close inspection of the labels (as described in no.7,8 above) will yield estimated results and point you in a healthier direction (while this is time consuming initially, it is a one off task per product).
Here is a summary of the free sugar content of our Just Food soups :
Moroccan chickpea soup : Zero free sugars (our label declares sugars of 2g per 100g, or 8g per 400 g pot, all derived from veggies & beans)
Winter Minestrone soup : Zero free sugars
Tomato & Roasted vegetable soup : Zero free sugars
Carrot & Coriander soup : Zero free sugars
Super Greens soup : Zero free sugars
Spicy Lentil soup : 1 gram per 400g pot (so, less than ¼ of a teaspoon!)
Cuban Black Bean soup : 1/3 of 1 gram per 400g pot (so, 1/10 of a teaspoon!)
Thai spiced vegetable : Zero free sugars
Bean & Quinoa : Less than ½ of 1 gram per 400g pot (so, less than 1/10 teaspoon!)
So, all (or vast majority) of the sugars in our soups are natural sugars, not free sugars.
So, it is possible to have very tasty foods, with zero or negligible free sugars!
- Given that the Free sugar data is not declared on current labelling, how can I find out precisely how much “free sugar” is in the prepared foods that I buy?
You can ask the producer directly, how much free sugar is in the product – all producers have this information (from the recipe).
As consumers, we can all seek to have Free sugar data added as a labelling requirement to our foods, through legislation changes (All Just Food packaging will have this info very soon)
I hope this post helps you and your family to make more informed choices, let me know if you have any queries, Deirdre x.
Hi I understand about the free sugar in juiced fruit because the fibre has been removed but what about blended fruit in which the whole fruit is consumed but in a liquidised form?
Hi Barbara, the blended fruit is not a problem, assuming you are starting with the whole fruit and taking nothing away (eg not sieving the pulp or anything), nor adding any sugar (or syrup, honey etc) to the fruit. I routinely make smoothies with all whole fruit (apples etc diced first),adding some water to the blender to have drinkable consistency, hope this helps, Deirdre.
I understand that juicing the fruit turns the natural sugar into free sugar.
I have been trying to get healthy by blending my fruit with spinach ,seeds and ginger in the morning .. It’s typically 1 banana , a small pear , some pineapple and half a whole orange . I blitz it for about 20 seconds with the spinach gingers and seeds. Am I doing myself more harm than good ?
Anne .. Totally confused about sugar .
Hi Anne, thanks for reading my blog, and getting back to me. Your smoothie sounds delicious and healthy – the main thing is to use Wholefoods – as I understand it you are not using any fruit juices, which is the right way to go. The WHO are basically saying that once a fruit is juiced it does not have the same health benefits as consuming the whole food, and the juicing process allows the sugar in the fruit to be processed by our bodies more quickly, so the sugar is behaving more like regular added sugar (like granulated sugar say). Also, it is widely accepted as a known unknown that there are micronutrients in whole foods (such as whole apples say), that have yet to be isolated and identified by scientists, but that are delivering benefits to us, and will be discovered in the future. What we can also safely say is that removal of fibre from Wholefoods is a man made idea, and we are actually not smarter than nature! I make my smoothies in the way you do, and just add water to my blender to get to a drinkable consistency. Hope this helps, Deirdre
Hi Deirdre can you tell me do they add sugar to low fat & skimmed milk to make it taste better because the labels all appear to show twice as much sugar as full fat milk?
Hi Geraldine, thanks for reding my blog and taking the time to contact me. To answer your question, if you take varying amounts of the fat out of whole milk, to yield skimmed milk or low fat milk, the resulting milk will still have the same number of grams of sugar per 100 g (as lactose, which is not a “free” sugar, so ok to consume, not subject to the 6 tsp per day limit). So, if you buy a litre of low fat milk, it should have the same grams of sugar as full fat milk (per 100 g or 100 ml). If we look at full fat yogurt vs low fat yogurt, what usually happens is as you say : sugar is added to make up for the removal of fat, to make the product more appealing (as the fat in full fat yogurt is very satiating, something, in this case sugar, is often added to make up for the lack of taste). This added sugar will be listed in the ingredient list. Then the total sugar on the label will be made up of lactose (milk sugar, not a free sugar), plus added sugar (a free sugar). If fruit is also added, the sugar total will also include the fruit sugar as well(which is not a free sugar), do the total sugar grams will be much higher. Hope this helps! Deirdre