We often hear that we have too much added sugar in our diet. But what does this mean?
What is added or free sugars?
Added or free sugars are sugars that are found in many processed foods, such as ready meals, soft drinks, cookies, sauces and more. In the ingredients list, you often find sugar under the name of glucose, dextrose, fructose, sugar (sucrose); as well as malt sugar (maltose), honey, syrup, fruit juice and fruit juice concentrate.
Free or added sugars also include foods that we add to our food and drinks, like sugar in coffee and tea, honey in muesli and even in our cooking via sweet sauce, tomato sauce or sugar.
If I should reduce my sugar intake, should I avoid fruits and dairy products as they have sugar as well?
No, although it is normal for people to think that the sugar naturally present in plain milk and fruits should be avoided. These foods do not fall in the World Health Organization guidelines.
Fruits are low calorie, healthy foods that provide not only energy from its sugars but more importantly fibre, vitamins, minerals and many phytochemicals essential to health.
Dairy products are nutritious foods, rich in calcium, necessary for bone health as well as a great source of protein. The intake of fresh fruits and dairy products are not associated with the same health problems as added sugars are.
How much is too much?
Health Promotion Board recommends keeping added sugars to less than 10% of their total calorie intake. Based on this guideline, a person who needs 1,800 kcal of energy daily should consume less than three tablespoons (or 45g) of sugar a day.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015 published a new guideline where it recommends a further reduction – below 5 per cent of your daily energy intake coming from added sugars for additional health benefits. That means a person who needs 1800kcal of energy daily should consume less than 1.5 tablespoons (or 22g) of sugar.
How much sugar do Singaporeans consume?
According to the 2018 National Nutrition Survey, Singaporeans consume more sugar than in 2010, hitting the top bar of 10% of total calories intake. Although the numbers show we are making an effort to reduce the amount of sugar from our drinks, we still have a sweet tooth. We are eating more sugar from cakes and desserts.
The problem with added sugar
Having too much sugar is associated with obesity (excessive body weight) and dental caries (tooth decay). In cancer prevention guidelines, it is also recommended to limit the amount of sugar consumed.
Added sugars add energy to our diets (without many other nutrients) and usually lead to excessive energy intake that contributes to weight gain. Besides, people who consume foods and drinks with added sugars, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, have a lower intake of more nutritious and healthy foods – the foods that protect our health.
Weight gain and excess body fat as a result of too much sugar in our diets are responsible for many diseases in our generation – diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, reproductive disorders (PCOS, subfertility), liver disease, mood disorders (depression), osteoarthritis and other.
Side note: having obesity also increases the risk of having complications from COVID-19.
Beyond the sugar problem
Soft drinks aside, some of our favourite drinks in Singapore are not only loaded with sugar but also high in calories and saturated fats. Saturated fat is known to increase our LDL-cholesterol, known as “bad cholesterol” and is often linked to heart disease.
Health guidelines recommend to keep saturated fat below 10% of the total calories in a day; to reduce further heart disease risk, keep it below 7%. This means that for someone that requires 1800kcal a day, he or she should have less than 14 grams a day to reduce risk of heart disease.
How much sugar does my favourite drink contain?
To help you understand how much sugar and saturated fat some of our favourite local drinks have, we have put together a table that also indicates how much exercise you need to do to burn it off.
Do note that the number of calories burned through exercise varies according to your weight. In this table, the amount of activity (brisk walking on a flat surface at about 5.6km/h) needed to burn the calories from the drinks are given for a 60 kg and 70 kg person.
|Energy||Sugar*||Saturated fat (SF)||60kg||70kg||1600 calories||1800 calories|
|% sugar||% SF||% sugar||% SF|
|Teh tarik (serving)||229 kcal||41g||3.09g||54 mins||46 mins||10%||2%||9%||2%|
|Teh (serving cup)||153 kcal||23.4g||1.43g||36 mins||31 mins||6%||1%||5%||1%|
(tea with milk and ginger)
|74 kcal||11.9g||1.15g||18 mins||15 mins||3%||1%||3%||1%|
|Mango sweet 250ml glass||79 kcal||8.1g||3.35g||19 mins||16 mins||2%||2%||2%||2%|
|Milo Godzilla||475 kcal||53.7g||12.16g||110 mins||95 mins||13%||7%||12%||6%|
|Milo dinosaur||357 kcal||46.4g||6.39g||83 mins||71 mins||12%||4%||10%||3%|
|Tea, bubble||160 kcal||26.8g||1.4g||38 mins||32 mins||7%||1%||6%||1%|
|Tea, bubble with milk||232 kcal||24.4g||13.4g||54 mins||47 mins||6%||8%||5%||7%|
What to do to reduce my sugar intake
- Ask for less sugar (Siu Dai) or no sugar (kosong) in your drinks.
- Choose drinks with the healthier choice symbol for less sugar.
- If you have soy milk, start by having reduced sugar and move to the no sugar added option.
- Leave the sugary drink to special occasions and choose water as your everyday drink.
- Share your drink with someone else.
If you have too much sugar from the foods you eat
- Have less sauce and gravy with your meal.
- Share your desserts and have them less often – choose fruits instead.
- Have more home-cooked foods – they tend to have less sugar than outside food.
Finally, substituting sugar for artificial sweeteners will not help you reduce your sweet tooth. Reducing the amount of sugar that you have gradually is a better alternative.
Want to find out how much sugar you are having and how to improve your health? Contact our dietitians today! See you there!
Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015. Executive summary. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK285538/
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity. 17 Sep 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/index.html