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The Truth About Sugar

Kate Freeman

Are you confused about the sugar in your food?

With all the sugar documentaries, marketing messages, blogs, health claims and other information we’re bombarded with day to day, it can all get a bit much. When it comes to deciding what to feed ourselves and our children, it’s vital to have a clear understanding of what sugar is and what we need to look for when we pick up a packet of food.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate and is the term used for a group of molecules that our body absorbs and breaks down for energy. Sugar is present naturally in almost all foods: vegetables, fruits, milk, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. It’s also added to lots of different processed foods and products like soft drinks, cakes, biscuits, crackers, breakfast cereals, yoghurts, sauces, spreads and much more.

The problem with too much sugar

In and of itself, sugar isn’t necessarily bad for us: it’s the dose that makes all the difference. Too much sugar consumed day after day leads to health problems; in particular, weight gain. The problem is that it can be easy to eat too much sugar each day, especially if you consume a diet high in processed foods.

Natural vs added sugar

When it comes to feeding our families, we should build our diet out of whole, fresh foods first. Regularly choose vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, meats, seafood, eggs and dairy. When choosing processed foods, it’s important to know a thing or two about nutrition labels and ingredient lists so you can make the best choice.

Knowing the difference between natural and added sugars is really important when making food choices. It’s the added sugars that we need to reduce. Natural sugar is the sugar that’s present in the whole food ingredient. For example, dried cranberries. There is natural sugar present in the fresh cranberries that were used to make the product. Sometimes when fruit is dried, extra sugar is used in the process. This extra sugar is an added sugar.

The best way to know if a product contains added sugar is to take a look at its ingredient list. The ingredients of a product are listed in order of weight from highest to lowest. That means if sugar comes first on the list, it’s a high sugar product. If it comes second or third, you’ll need to check the nutrition information panel to get a better idea of how much there is. If the dried cranberries have added sugar in their ingredients list, it would say: “cranberries, sugar.”

The other names of sugar

It’s important to note that sugar has a bunch of different names. It’s not as simple as finding the one word.

Sugar also goes by the name of: fructose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, glucose, corn syrup, molasses, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, malt, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, raw sugar, coconut sugar, rice malt syrup, agave, and a heap more! If you find any of these on the list, that product contains added sugar.

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Nutrition information panels

Once you’ve had a look at the ingredients list, it’s time to head over to the nutrition information panel. This panel is useful for choosing foods with less saturated fat, salt, added sugars and kilojoules. For foods that don’t classify as one of the core food groups (vegetables, fruits, meats, legumes, grains, etc), this can be a great way of seeing how much energy, fat, salt or sugar it adds to your day and gives you the option to decide whether or not it’s really worth it. The nutrition information panel is also useful for comparing two products in the same category, e.g. choosing between different brands of breakfast cereal.

To compare foods, look at the panel and per 100g of each food and choose the one that has the lowest amount of sugar. Some foods, like crackers or muesli bars contain fibre, another important nutrient for long term health. If a food makes a claim about fibre or containing whole grains, it must show the fibre content on its nutrient information panel. After you’ve looked at the sugar, take a look at the fibre, if applicable, and choose the one with the most for an extra health boost.

ACT Health’s Good Habits for Life website has a great shopping helper guide that fits in your wallet for comparing the amount of sugar in packaged food and drinks per 100g/ml.

Sugar in packaged foods: The obvious ones

Some packaged/processed foods contain large amounts of added sugar and many of them contain very little nutrition. Regular consumption of these foods contributes to weight gain, poor long term health and an increased risk of developing chronic disease. They shouldn’t feature regularly or in large amounts in yours or your child’s diet. They most certainly shouldn’t be consumed every day. These foods are:

  • Soft drink/sports drinks
  • Lollies/chocolates
  • Biscuits, cakes, slices, pastries
  • Ice cream, custard and other dairy desserts

Sugar in packaged foods: The hidden ones

Some packaged/processed foods contain large amounts of added sugar, but it might not be so obvious. These foods can contain important nutrients, but some varieties can also be high in sugar. You certainly don’t need to cut these foods out, they are fine to be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Being confident in reading food labels, so you can make the best choices, will make a big difference when navigating this group of foods:

  • Yoghurt
  • Flavoured milks (including liquid breakfast drinks)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Muesli, nut & fruit bars

Other processed foods to be mindful of as they may contain added sugar:

  • Milk alternatives (rice, soy, oat, coconut)
  • Jarred sauces
  • Tinned products
  • Fruit drinks (i.e. made from concentrate or contains added sugar in the ingredients list, not 100% fruit juice)
  • Spreads


Plain yoghurt naturally contains about 4g of sugar per 100g. This is natural sugar and not a problem when yoghurt is consumed as part of a balanced diet. If sugar is included in the ingredients list, then the product contains added sugar (make sure you look out for sugar’s other names). Check the ingredients list. If you choose a sweetened yoghurt, choose the one with the lowest amount of total sugar on the nutrition information panel as this means it contains the lowest amount of added sugar. Even better, add real fruit to plain yoghurt for sweetness… not to mention lots of other nutrition!

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Breakfast Cereals 

Most breakfast cereals contain a mix of natural and added sugars. Natural sugar comes from the addition of dried fruit and from the sugar naturally present in the seeds, nuts and grains used to the make the end product. Check the ingredients list to see if added sugars have been used. If so, choose the breakfast cereal with the lowest amount of total sugar. It’s also worth checking the nutrition information panel for the fibre content. The best cereal choice will be the one with the highest amount of fibre and the lowest amount of sugar.

Muesli Nut & Fruit Bars

Muesli, nut and fruit bars may also contain a mix of natural and added sugars. Natural sugar comes from the addition of dried fruit and from the sugar naturally present in the seeds, nuts and grains used to make the end product. Added sugar is often used, so check ingredients lists to get an idea of how much may have been added. You will be hard-pressed to find a muesli bar without added sugar, so choose the one with the lowest amount of sugar (under 15g per 100g) and the highest amount of fibre (over 6g per 100g).

Take home points

Remember to look at your child’s diet as a whole, as well as the individual foods that make up their diet day to day. Sugar intake becomes a problem when children are eating lots of different foods containing added sugar each day: for example sugary breakfast cereals, muesli bars, fruit drinks and sweet spreads, etc. This becomes even more of a problem if your children are also regularly eating other foods like lollies, cakes, biscuits and soft drink.

Here is my parting advice for feeding your kids:

  1. Build your child’s daily diet out of whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, seafood, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Make healthy food normal and let it feature daily in your family’s lives.
  1. Keep high sugar foods to a minimum in your child’s diet. They’re not foods they need to be eating daily, so try to avoid keeping them in your home.
  1. When choosing processed foods to feed your kids, like yoghurts and breakfast cereals, choose the ones that have the least amount of sugar per 100g. Reduce the amount of total processed foods your child eats as well. Small changes over time can add up to make a big difference.
  1. Get your family involved in the ACT Health’s ‘Sugar Swap Challenge’ and be encouraged to ‘swap out’ sugary drinks, snacks and cereals. To sign up for the Sugar Swap Challenge visit Once signed up your family will receive a starter kit and a cookbook full of delicious, healthy and easy recipes.


ACT Health is running the ‘Sugar Swap Challenge’ where Canberra families are being encouraged to ‘swap out’ sugary drinks, sugary snacks and sugary cereals.

To sign up for the Sugar Swap Challenge visit

Once signed up, your family will receive a free Sugar Swap Challenge Starter Kit to help get you started including a cookbook full of delicious, healthy and easy recipes.


Kate Freeman

Kate Freeman is a Registered Nutritionist and the founder and managing director of The Healthy Eating Hub. Kate’s healthy eating philosophy is all about whole, fresh foods, being realistic about life and creating long term healthy eating habits. She doesn’t believe in detoxes, fad diets or quick fixes. Once you’ve finished working with Kate, you’ll be empowered to feed yourself well for the rest of you life! More about the Author

  • Kerry Elizabeth Mills

    Although I would basically agree with the premise that one should eat whole foods, I’m not sure about this “natural” vs “added” sugar thing. I mean, if you eat sugar that was there all along, it’s exactly the same as eating the same amount of sugar (of the same kind) added to a food. The difference is not in sugar, but in the surrounding ingredients, e.g. fibre. That is, an apple contains fibre, which slows down absorption of the sugar. Clear apple juice, however, doesn’t.

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