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Fact File - Added and Natural Sugars

Foods and drinks with added sugar should be kept to a minimum, particularly highly processed foods which can often also contain a lot of calories and salt. This fact file focuses on both natural and added sugar in foods and drinks, explaining the differences to help you make better choices.


Types of Sugar

Sugar is a type of simple carbohydrate and these are either naturally found in foods, particularly fruit and milk or are added to foods and drinks. Natural sugars found in whole fruit and milk are less likely to cause tooth decay because they are contained within the structure of the fruit or are not in a concentrated form, unless fruit are juiced or blended. Added sugar is usually found in highly processed foods and drinks such as sweets, cakes and fizzy drinks which often are just high in calories with little other nutritive value, unlike fruit and milk which have naturally occurring sugars. Sugar is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream.


How much sugar is healthy?

The kind of sugar we eat too much of is known as "free sugars". Free sugars are any sugars added to food or drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.

The Reference Intake (RI) of total sugars in our diet for adults is 90g. This includes added sugar as well as sugar from milk and whole fruit.

Within the RI of 90g, adults should not to eat more than 30g of free sugars a day, which is roughly seven sugar cubes. Free sugars are those that are added to foods or drinks, or found naturally in syrups, honey and unsweetened fruit juices. The less one has of these free sugars in their diet, the better.

Some foods provide a mixture of free sugars and natural sugars, others are all free sugars, however the total sugar in a product is stated on labels which includes both the free sugar and natural sugars. This can be misleading.


Why are natural sugars ok?

Natural sugars found in whole fruit and vegetables also contain a range of other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and fibre. These foods have a number of positive health benefits. Milk is a rich source of calcium and of micronutrients. Too much free sugar in the diet can contribute to unnecessary excess calories which is linked to weight gain and obesity. Obesity is a major health concern in the UK. 


Free sugars & Natural Sugars in Foods & Drinks

Here are some examples of foods and drinks to help you understand free sugars and natural sugars in products. Remember it is the free sugars we need to limit and should have no more than 30g a day.

  1. Fruit yoghurt – the sugar in whole or chopped pieces of fruit and in the milk (actual yoghurt) are natural sources of sugar, however any syrup or added sugar used to sweeten the fruit yoghurt are free sugars, therefore this food has a mixture of both natural and free sugars. Natural yoghurt without any additions will only contain natural sugar from the milk (lactose).
  2. Fizzy drinks – non-diet/light fizzy drinks are likely to be sweetened with added sugar, therefore they contain only free sugars.
  3. Fruit juices - even if they are unsweetened count as free sugars as the fruit are not in their whole form, however a whole piece of fruit contains natural sugar only.
  4. Any sugar you add to tea, coffee or to foods to sweeten are free sugars.


Natural & Free Sugars - Ingredients

‘Total sugars’ on labelling indicates both natural and free sugars (all sugars). From this alone it may be difficult to differentiate the source of sugar unless it is very obvious from the food or drink, such as a sweetened fizzy drink. Below are some tips to help distinguish natural and free sugars in manufactured products. It is the free sugars (added sugar, fruit juice, honey and syrup) we need to reduce.

  • Ingredients are listed in order of weight, therefore if sugar appears near the beginning of the list, the food or drink is likely to have more free sugars.
  • Added free sugars can come in different forms other than white or brown sugar and sugar cane. Look out for these forms of sugar in the ingredients list; fructose, corn, glucose or fructose syrup, sucrose, dextrose, honey, nectars, fruit juice and molasses.



Labelling on the front of packaged foods are useful at a glance to decide which food or drink is high in sugar, remember this is the total sugar content of the product. As with other selected nutrients, it is often colour coded, (‘traffic light’) based on set criteria for low, medium and high amounts. If sugar is colour-coded red this means an unhealthy choice and if green, this means a healthier choice. However, this does not differentiate between how much is added and how much is naturally in the product. The values being defined below for sugars:

High = more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g 
Low = 5g of total sugars or less per 100g



Many packaged foods make claims, such as ‘sugar free’, ‘low sugar’ and ‘no added sugar’.

  • Sugar free – this does mean sugar free, but check to see if the food is not high in other nutrients, such as fat or salt.
  • Low sugar – this means less than 5g of sugar per 100g (5g is roughly a teaspoon)
  • No added sugar – this means although no extra sugar is added, check if the product contains naturally occurring sugars already.



For some processed foods it may be necessary to sweeten foods due to various reasons, for example, for some cooking sauces, added sugar can help bring out the taste or balance a sour taste or acidity, but by cooking from scratch and reducing the amount of obvious sources of sugar and highly processed foods and drinks you can help reduce and manage the amount of free sugars in your diet, as this is where the main source of sugar comes from. Remember natural sugars from whole fruit, vegetables and milk which are included within the total sugar intake are rich sources of essential nutrients such as fibre, minerals and vitamins.


This fact file is intended for adults as a general guide only and not a substitute for professional advice or a diagnosis. If you are on certain medication or suffer from a medical condition, seek individual advice from your health care professional. Date produced April 2016

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