The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recently released a report in the UK on Carbohydrates where they gave new recommendations in line with WHO that free sugar intake should account for no more than 5% of daily energy intake. But what are free sugars, just how much sugar is that, and what does it mean in day to day life?
What are free sugars?
A slightly misleading term (in my opinion), free sugars are not as you may be inclined to believe, sugars that can be freely consumed without any concern. In fact they are the opposite – ones you want to be limiting within your everyday diet. The official definition of free sugars from SACN states that:
‘Free sugars’ comprises all monosaccharides* and disaccharides* added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. Under this definition lactose (the sugar in milk) when naturally present in milk and milk products and the sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods (particularly fruits and vegetables) are excluded.
*Monosaccharides are single sugar units (glucose and fructose) and disaccharides are two single units joined together (sucrose).
Free sugars include:
- Table sugar (sugar cane/ beet/other sources)
- Golden Syrup
- Molasses or Treacle
- Agave syrup
- Rice malt syrup
- Coconut blossom syrup
- Maple syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Unsweetened fruit juice
- **Any other sort of syrup that I have failed to mention typically used as a sugar replacer that contains sugar in the food label!
What doesn’t count as free sugars?
- Lactose in milk and dairy products
- Sugar naturally present in fruit, including dried, canned and stewed
- Sugar naturally present in vegetables
- Sugar naturally present in grains and cereals
What does 5% of free sugars mean?
The new SACN recommends that free sugar intake in the UK should account for no more than 5% of daily energy intake. Based on average population diets, this equates to:
- Children 4-6 years – 19g (5 sugar cubes)
- Children 7-10 years – 24g (6 sugar cubes)
- Children 11 years + and adults – 30g (7 sugar cubes)
To visually demonstrate what granulated sugar looks like in a food product, you could look at a Freddo Frog and a Snickers Bar. I am in no way endorsing either of these chocolates, but they are pretty common treat foods that most people are familiar with. An 18g Freddo frog contains 10g of sugar and a 48g snickers bar has 22g sugar. Little things quickly add up! It’s easy to see how eating foods like this which are rich in free sugars can quickly meet or exceed these new recommendations from SACN.
Free sugars vs non milk extrinsic sugars vs added sugars
The term free sugars will now replace the older (and confusing) term ‘non-milk extrinsic sugars’ (NMES) as well as the phrase ‘added sugars’ which is used in the US and Europe. This is in line with recommendations from the WHO. NMES includes stewed, canned and dried fruit within it’s sugar count while free sugars doesn’t count it. Added sugars covers any syrups and sugars added during manufacture to a food, but doesn’t include unsweetened fruit juice and honey like free sugars.
Food labelling of free sugars
At the moment food labels here in the UK only account for total sugar, not free sugars. This can make it difficult to distinguish the difference between sugars naturally present in a food and those with sugar added. Hopefully in future this will change and this report will result in changes made to food labelling laws to incorporate added sugars to help consumers make informed choices. Until this happens, look at the ingredients list to see whether there are sugars added to a particular food product. The higher up the list, the bigger the proportion as ingredients are listed in order of quantity.
- SACN 2015 Carbohydrates and health report
- Public Health England – Why 5%? Explaining SACNs reasoning behind sugar recommendations