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Understanding Sugars and how they affect your health

Category: Diabetes

This fact sheet will help you to understand how sugar might affect your health and wellbeing.




Sugars make up a nutrient called carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are the main energy source for our body. It is recommended that about 50-55% of our energy (calorie) intake should come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in many of the everyday foods that we eat. The sugars in these foods can be:


Simple Sugars

These sugars are generally sweet. A good example of this type of sugar is sucrose. This is the sugar used for sweetening a cup of tea or in sugary drinks. Many other simple sugars are added to our food by manufacturers to make food taste sweeter. You might see them on a food label listed as glucose, fructose, syrup, sugar, lactose, dextrose, honey, treacle, molasses, corn syrup or fruit juice concentrates. These are also known as 'added sugars'. Like sucrose, these sugars make foods taste sweeter and provide energy (calories) but provide no other nutritional benefit.

Some simple sugars are found naturally in food. For example, fructose is naturally present in fruit and lactose is naturally present in milk and yogurts. These foods contain lots of other important nutrients like fibre, vitamin C and calcium.


Complex Sugars

Starch is a complex sugar. This means starchy foods are made up of a more complex structure of sugars. Starchy foods include bread, rice, potatoes and pasta. These foods are an important source of fuel for the body. High fibre varieties of these foods are the best.

Combination of simple and complex sugars: Foods containing both simple and complex sugars include pulses (peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas), potatoes and some root vegetables (sweet potatoes, parsnips and yam). These foods provide other important nutrients besides energy (calories) such as vitamins and minerals. They also contain fibre which is very important for health.

The healthiest way to include carbohydrates in your diet is to base your meals on high fibre starchy foods such as wholegrain bread rice and pasta and other wholegrains such as quinoa, millet and buckwheat. Potatoes eaten in their jackets are another good example of a high fibre starchy food. Use milk on your cereals or have a glass of milk with dinner. Natural yogurts can be used as a topping to breakfast cereal or as a snack along with a serving of chopped fruit.




The National Adult Nutritional Survey (2011) showed that an average of 14.6% of our calories come from sugars added to foods. The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines (2003) stated that no more than 10% of calories should come from added sugars. They are now considering reducing that to no more than 5% of calories.


So How Much Added Sugar is that?

  • An average adult eats about 2000kcal per day. If 10% of this was to come from added sugars, this would equal 14 teaspoons of sugar per day.
  • For boys and girls, calorie requirements differ as they get older:
  Boys Amount of sugar Girls Amount of sugar
Age (yrs) Calories Teaspoons Calories Teaspoons
5-13 1400-2200 9-15 1400-2200 9-15
14-18 2400-2800 16-19 2000 13

The tables below show just how easy it is to have more added sugar each day than is recommended by health experts.


How Do I Compare?

Take a look and see how much added sugar you or your child takes in each day, from everyday foods and drinks that you might have in your cupboards.

Compare this to the guidelines from the WHO to see if you need to reduce how much added sugar your family eats.

Drink Sugar (g) No. of teaspoons (4g per teaspoon)
Bottle of coke (500mls) 50 12.5
Carton Ribena original (228mls) 40 10
Carton Ribena light (228mls) 2 0.5
Miwadi orange squash (200mls made up from 50mls squash in 200mls water) 5 1
Miwadi orange squash (200mls made up from 15mls squash in 100mls water) 1.5 <0.5
Lucozade (500mls) 86 21.5
Lucozade sport (500mls) 17.5 4
Carton Capri sun (200mls) 21.6 5.5
Glass unsweetened OJ (200mls) 18 4.5
Glass milk (200mls) 10 (lactose) 3.5


Food Sugar (g) No. of teaspoons (4g per teaspoon)
Mars Bar (51g) 31 8
Tube Smarties (170g) or 53g Cadbury’s Dairymilk 32 8
Small box Smarties/Cadbury’s Buttons small pack 10 2-2.5
Nutrigrain cereal bar (37g chocolate) 12 3
Actimel regular raspberry (100g bottle) 12 3
Actimel fat free (100g bottle) 3.5 <1
Petit filous small pot (54g) 7 1.6
Yoplait Strawberry yoghurt (125g) 16 4
Yoplait natural yoghurt (125g) 5 (lactose) 1.2
Glenisk Greek yoghurt (125g) 5 (lactose) 1.6
Ambrosia rice pudding (120g) 11 2.75
Bowl coco pops (30g) 11 2.6
Bowl Shreddies (30g) 7 1.75
2 x Weetabix (37.5g) 2 0.5
Flahavans Porridge (40g) 0.4 -
Baked beans (200g) 10 2.5
Pasta Shapes in tomato sauce (200g) 8 2




Recent evidence has linked a high intake of added sugars to an increase in body weight. Growing evidence suggests that drinking sugar sweetened drinks is linked with increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes and other chronic diseases including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and coronary heart disease (CHD). There is also strong evidence linking the intake of added sugars to tooth decay.




A high sugar intake, especially from sugar sweetened drinks, is linked to excess weight gain in both children and adults. Also, a diet that is high in sugar may cause the liver to make too much fat. This causes changes in the way the body transports fats in the blood and makes the body less responsive to the hormone insulin, leading to excessive weight gain. Weight gain itself alters the response to insulin. An altered response to insulin in the body increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease and many other health problems.




There is not yet any strong evidence that sugar directly contributes to hyperactivity. Eating sugary foods can lead to sharp rises and falls in blood sugar. This is not good for general health but we are not really sure how or if this might affect mood, attention or behaviour in the short term.




All low-calorie sweeteners used in Ireland, including aspartame, sucralose, sorbitol and acesulfame K, have been tested and approved safe for human consumption. They give a sweet taste to food but provide few or no calories. They are often used in products such as diet soft drinks, sugarfree chewing gum, confectionery and yoghurts. Concerns have been expressed that drinking diet drinks may create a desire for other sweet or sugary drinks. The European Food Standards Agency, responsible for approving food additives, is currently reviewing low-calorie sweeteners.




  • Milk and water are the best drinks for children.
  • Fizzy or carbonated drinks, even “sugar free”, “no added sugar” “max”, “free” and “diet” varieties are not recommended for children. This is because of their acidity which increases the risk of tooth decay. They also can reduce appetite for more nourishing foods and may contribute to excessive weight gain.
  • Sports and energy drinks are not recommended for children. They are intended for adults engaged in regular strenuous exercise. They usually contain high levels of salt which may not be safe for your child.
  • Energy stimulant drinks, even the sugar-free versions, contain caffeine at a level which can interfere with sleep and cause irritability. They are not intended for children.




If a food is high in sugar it will have more than 15g of sugar per 100g of the food.

Nutrient A little A lot
Sugar 5g or less per 100g 15g or more per 100g

You can also learn a lot from looking at the ingredients list.  In a food label, items are listed in descending order of weight. The higher up sugar is on the list, the higher the sugar content. For instance, from the ingredients list below we can tell that this product is high in sugar, as sugar is the first ingredient on the list. It also shows that lactose and malt extract, both simple sugars, have been added to this food.

Ingredients: sugar, cocoa butter, milk powder, cocoa mass, butterfat, lactose skimmed milk powder, malt extract (barley), emulsifier (lecithin), flavouring (vanilla)

In an ingredients list, sugar can be disguised as: sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup, molasses, raw sugar, dextrose, mannitol, golden syrup, malt extract, brown sugar and honey. Some food labels give more detailed information about sugars. ‘Of which sugars' tells us how much of the carbohydrate in the product comes from sugar.  Unfortunately, not enough manufacturers give details of how much of this is ‘added’ sugar or how much is naturally occurring sugar.

You can work out how many teaspoons of sugar are in your packaged foods by dividing the total amount of sugar in a portion of the food you are going to eat. So if you eat 4 biscuits shown below you will be eating 14g of sugar. There are 4g sugar per teaspoon and so these 4 biscuits contain 3.5 teaspoons of sugar.

Typical Composition 100g contains Per biscuit
Energy 1972kj/469kcal 305kj/73kcal
Protein 6.5g 1.0g
Carbohydrates 73.4g 11.3g
Of which sugars 22.8g 3.5g
Fat 16.6g 2.6g
Of which saturates 7.2g 1.1g
Fibre 2.8g 0.4g
Sodium 0.1g 0.1g



  • Sugars make up an important nutrient called carbohydrate.
  • Lately, health experts have advised that we reduce how much 'added sugars' we eat each day. Evidence shows that eating a lot of added sugars is linked to many chronic diseases.
  • 'Added sugars' are sugars added by manufacturers to food to make them sweeter.
  • Added sugars are found in many food and drinks that we regularly buy as part of our weekly grocery shopping.
  • Choosing to cook fresh food more often than using convenience and processed foods will reduce the amount of added sugars in the diet.
  • Use food labels as a guide to choosing foods with less added sugar.
  • If you buy a food that contains some added sugar, then try to make sure it is a food that provides other nutrients like fibre or calcium. Good examples include high fibre breakfast cereals or yoghurts.
  • It's all about balance. A little bit of added sugar each day does no harm. Keep sweetened foods as a treat rather than a regular feature of your diet.



Created by members of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute March 2014 Review date: March 2016

2014 Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute, INDI. All rights reserved. May be reproduced in its entirety provided source is acknowledged. This information is not meant to replace advice from your medical doctor or individual counselling with a dietitian. It is intended for educational and informational purposes only.

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