How Much Sugar Is Enough? View from a Doctor’s Desk – Dr Lisa Surman

The recent Four Corners’ episode on television discussing the obesity epidemic in Australia, and the burgeoning health-care costs associated, exposed the food, nutrition and health politics in Australia over many years and the powerful grip Big Food has on Australian food and nutrition policy. 

There have been clear links made for some time between free dietary sugars, sugary drink consumption and obesity. Evidence is strong and growing regarding the effect sugary drink taxes have in driving down consumption and incentivising manufacturers to put less sugar in their products. Taxing sugary drinks is far from the single solution to the obesity or diabetes epidemics, but is a start.

The World Health Authority (WHO) recommends adults and children limit their intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake daily. If you are and average-sized adult with a healthy body weight, this translates to about 54 grams of sugar (approximately 12 teaspoons) per day.

Free sugars are defined as monosaccharides (glucose) and disaccharides (table sugar), added to food and drinks by the manufacturers, cooks or person. It also applies to sugars present in honey syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. These sugars are different to those found in whole fruit and vegetables, which do not apply. Sugar added to food and drinks can have different names, all remain sugars: sucrose, glucose, corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, raw sugar, cane sugar, malt extract, fruit juice concentrate, molasses.

More than 52% of Australians are estimated to exceed these recommendations, sugars are added to processed foods and pre-packaged foods and drinks. The largest proportion of our free sugar intake comes from sugary drinks (over 50%). Australians consume more sugar-sweetened drinks than Britons who implemented a tax in 2016. Should we introduce a sugar tax, we would join 28 other countries and 7 US cities. Two years after Mexico introduced the tax, sugary drink purchases decreased by 7.6%. One 600ml bottle of sports drink contains 36g or 8 teaspoons of sugar, 600ml of coke contains 64g or 14 teaspoons of added sugar.
Sugary drinks are heavily advertised, available everywhere and promoted – they provide large numbers of kilojoules and provide no nutrients.

Changes you can make immediately to help reduce your sugar intake while waiting for some policy change include:

  • Carry and use a refillable water bottle
  • Eat fewer foods with free sugars, reduce sweets such as lollies and chocolates, cakes and biscuits
  • Don’t walk down the sugary drink aisle of the supermarket
  • Keep sparkling water or home made iced tea in the fridge
  • Avoid vending machines
  • Make some swaps – swap your cereal for a lower-sugar variety and limit the sugar you add
  • Read the labels on food – if there is more than 15g of sugar per 100g, check to see if sugar is one of the main ingredients (it will be listed as one of the first three ingredients on the ingredient panel)

Other foods high in sugar are breakfast cereals – one cup of some types of cereal can contain 30-50% of the daily sugar allowance. Many “health” foods and sugar-free recipes can be misleading – they are referring to the product being ‘sucrose-free’, but sugar derivatives such as rice-malt syrup, agave and maple syrup are still forms of sugars.

For a helpful guide for swaps, top tips, recipes and a sugary drink calculator to estimate your own intake and percentages, see

Dr Lisa Surman, CBD West Medical Centre, Perth, WA

Member of Best Practice Software’s Clinical Leadership Advisory Committee

“Often patients spend time talking about current medical and social issues, taking valuable time away from dealing with what they have really come in to discuss. One of our solutions is to direct them to news articles on our website written by a doctor in our Practice that outline current issues and offer strategies to manage the problem and links to relevant, reputable websites”.

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