Food & Nutrition

What you need to know about sugar

Is all sugar bad for you? And how much are you really consuming? Here’s the lowdown on the sweet stuff.
Published 9 April 2017

What is sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate. It’s found naturally in food such as fruit and milk and is also added to many foods. Eating too much can lead to issues such as obesity and tooth decay. A US study also found a diet high in sugar may raise your risk of dying from heart disease even if you aren’t overweight.

The fructose myth

Fructose has had some bad press, with claims it’s responsible for obesity and type 2 diabetes. But Nutrition Australia and National Health and Medical Research guidelines say while you should limit all sugar, there’s no need to cut out fructose; small quantities in a balanced diet are fine. There is only a small amount in fresh fruit, so don’t stop eating it!

How much do we eat?

Australians are consuming, on average 14 teaspoons of sugar, each day, according to the Australian Health Survey (2011-12). This is the equivalent of 60g of sugar every day.

Of the sugars we eat, 80 per cent are from processed foods. Soft drinks, juices, cakes, confectionary and sports drinks are the main culprits.

World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines say no more the 10% of your total daily kilojoule intake should be made up of free sugars. For an adult Australian consuming 8700kJ a day, this means no more than 55g or 13 teaspoons of sugar a day. WHO says a reduction to below five per cent a day would provide additional health benefits. Find out how you can reduce your sugar intake.

Types of sugars

There are many different kinds of sugar. Simple sugars, or monosaccharides, include glucose, fructose and galactose. Disaccharides, or double sugars, include sucrose, or table sugar, maltose and lactose, the sugar in milk. Disaccharides are broken down in the body into simple sugars such as glucose and fructose.

How much sugar is in...

Ingredient Quantity of sugarPoints
½ cup (130g) tomato pasta sauce2 tsp (7.9g)3
1 cup (270g) baked beans in tomato sauce1½ tsp (5.7g)4
1 cup (90g) baked muesli with dried fruit and nuts6½ tsp (26.1g)13
1 cup (250ml) can pumpkin and carrot soup3½ tsp (13.8g)7
1 tub (200g) full-fat vanilla yoghurt6¾ tsp (27g)9
½ cup (125ml) sweet & sour sauce12 tsp (47.3g)15

Sugar, honey, syrups, and nectars

It’s no surprise that humans have a preference for sweet foods – in fact, for millennia we’ve been foraging for honey and berries to satisfy our sweet tooth. Nowadays, sugars and sweeteners come in many different forms with an ever-expanding range at the supermarket. Foods with naturally occurring sugars, like dairy foods with lactose and fruit with fructose, contain important nutrients that our bodies need – these are not the kinds of sugars we’re concerned about. The real focus should be on reducing our consumption of food and drinks that are high in added sugar. If you choose, you can switch to a sugar alternative in some places. Here’s what you need to know about some of these options.

Consuming food or beverages that are high in added sugar may lead to higher kilojoule intake. Plus, these foods often take the place of more wholesome foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and wholegrains. There’s a link between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (like soft drink and cordials) and increased risk of weight gain in adults and children. However, sugar and other natural sweet sources, such as maple syrup, are not bad for you if you only have a little sprinkle or drizzle here and there. It’s important to note, however, that a sugar is a sugar and replacing table sugar with honey doesn’t do anything to lower the Points.

Palm sugar/coconut sugar

What is it? A natural substance produced from the sap of palm or coconut trees. Perfect in Asian cooking such as Thai curries, it balances the flavours of salty fish sauce or spicy chilli.

Watch out! These sugars are no healthier than regular table sugar and both have a similar Points.


What is it? A natural substance made by bees. The subtle flavour of honey differs between leatherwood and eucalyptus varieties and depends where the bees have gathered their nectar. You may have heard about the health benefits of manuka honey, but more scientific evidence is needed to support these medicinal claims.

Watch out! No matter the type of honey, it still has 2 Points per teaspoon.

Agave nectar (syrup)

What is it? Produced from agave plants, Mexico’s famous succulent used to make tequila, agave nectar is one and a half times sweeter than sugar, so you can use less. It’s popular as a vegan alternative to honey in cooking.

Watch out! The health claims of desserts, bliss balls and raw brownies made with agave nectar may be misleading as the total sugars and Points can be as high as table sugar.

Brown rice syrup

What is it? A natural substance made by fermenting brown rice into a syrup. It has a rich caramel flavour that’s perfect for drizzling on pancakes or using in baking.

Watch out! Popular diets that cut out sugars or fructose often recommend replacing with rice malt syrup or brown rice syrup. However, be aware that the glycaemic index of these products is very high (GI=98 ) and should be used sparingly.