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  • Writer's pictureGillian Lewis


Updated: Dec 11, 2023

We all love the taste of sugar. However, we all know that too much sugar is bad for us.

So the question is -

How much sugar is it OK for me (and my family) to eat?

Sugar can be divided into two sources, sugar added to food and sugar that naturally occurs in food. Not surprisingly, the type of sugar that causes most of the problems is the extra sugar that we add to food and drinks.

Unless you are trying to (or need to) lose weight, there is no need to limit foods that contain naturally occurring sugars. It is good to eat fruit and some starchy vegetables (root crops) every day. For most people, rice, bread and flour can be eaten two to three times a week.

The sugar that we need to limit is the extra sugar. The World Health Organisation (WHO) uses the term ‘free sugars’ and defines them as –

Free sugars are all sugars added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

That means any food or drink that we add sugar to has free sugars in it. Also, any food or drinks that we buy from a shop probably has free sugars in it. Most food that comes in cans, jars or packets has free sugars in it. Therefore, there are free sugars in many of the things that we eat and drink.

WHO says that eating and drinking free sugars ‘may reduce the intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of NCDs’. Also that ‘Dental diseases are the most prevalent NCDs globally’ and that there is an ‘association between (the) intake of free sugars and dental disease’.

What this means is that eating and drinking too much free sugars can make us sick!

What is being seen around the world is increasing numbers of overweight children and adults, that are also malnourished. This is happening because people are choosing to eat and drink many foods containing free sugars and using them to replace foods containing the nutrients the body needs to thrive. These people are more likely to develop NCDs and other illnesses as the malnutrition causes a reduction in immune function.

To reduce the incidence of obesity and NCDs in the population, WHO recommends limiting the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake is part of a healthy diet. A further reduction to less than 5% of total energy intake is suggested for additional health benefits.

Following is a table detailing the amount of free sugar that is in some of our favourite foods and drinks.

sugar in sweets

These are only a few examples of food containing free sugars. There is free sugar in most food and drink products available for purchase in shops. It is always a good idea to check the packaging.

The big surprise for many people, when seeing this list, is the amount of free sugars in the milk drinks and fruit juices. It is generally considered healthy to drink a small milk or fruit juice. However, these drinks include lots of free sugars and are obviously not as healthy as originally thought.

So how much ‘free sugars’ can I include in my diet each day?

Our energy intake needs vary, depending on our age and activity levels; everyone is different. By selecting a few people of varying ages and occupations it is possible to get a good idea about how much free sugar it is OK to include in our own diet.

  • 5-year-old child– 6000kJ – no more than 600kJ should come from free sugars. That is a maximum of 9 tsp or 36g of sugar per day. So that is one Breaka (27g) and three scotch finger biscuits (10g).

  • 12-year-old adolescent – 8000kj – no more than 800Kj of energy should come from free sugars. The is a maximum of 12tsp or 48g of sugar per day. So that is one small glass of fizzy drink (21g), and a small bar of chocolate (26g).

  • A pregnant woman – 9000kj - no more than 900Kj of energy should come from free sugars. The is a maximum of 13 ½ tsp or 53g of sugar per day. So that is three Oreo cookies (11g), three cups of tea with one teaspoon of sugar in each (12g), a glass of fruit juice (21g) and one or two lollies (10g).

  • A young man who works in a very physical job all day – 12000kj - no more than 1200Kj of energy should come from free sugars per day. The is a maximum of 18 tsp or 72g of sugar. So that is one slice of cake (58g) and a small glass of fizzy drink (21g).

  • An office worker – 8500kj - no more than 850Kj of energy should come from free sugars. The is a maximum of 13tsp or 51g of sugar per day. Two small glasses of fizzy drink (42g) and two scotch finger biscuits (7g).

  • A retired mama with grandchildren, who stays in the village – 7500kj - no more than 750Kj of energy should come from free sugars per day. The is a maximum of 11tsp or 45g of sugar. Four cups of tea with two teaspoons of sugar in each (32g) and four scotch finger biscuits (14g).

Remember, these are the maximum totals for free sugar intake! WHO recommends that, for improved health benefits, we should consume no more than 5% of our daily energy intake from free sugars, that is half of these amounts.

If we are trying to (or need to) lose weight, then our goal should be to consume no free sugars in our diet.

Children do need sugar in their diet so that they can thrive and grow; and have the energy to learn and play. So, replace the foods containing free sugars with fruit and starchy carbohydrates (root crops); these foods contain lots of natural sugars and contain many of the vitamins and minerals that children need. Children should drink water, there is no need for fruit juice, cordial, fizzy drinks, or milk drinks in their diet.

So, after looking at the available information, my recommendation is to try to avoid eating and drinking foods with free sugars. Keep these foods and drinks as treats, for parties and celebrations. That way everyone can enjoy them without risking their health.

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