More sugar? Aren’t we sweet enough already?!

At last the sun is shining, it’s been a scorcher of a weekend and the idea of a lovely ice-cold soft drink becomes very appealing….

File:Orange juice 1 edit1.jpg

So what is it to be? Perhaps a refreshing glass of iced water? No? Some fruit squash? A glass of something fizzy perhaps? Or a fruit juice or smoothie? When it comes to soft drinks, what we choose might actually not be as healthy as we thought. I am not going to whinge about the misleading marketing of these drinks here today as I will be ranting all day but I do think food manufacturers need to take more responsibility on how they promote these drinks. So do you want the bad news first…….or the really bad news?


Lets start with the bad news………..Many of us are aware that sugary drinks damage our teeth but did you know that squash or pure fruit juice can be just as bad for us as a can of fizzy drink. Clever marketing means they look the healthiest option – we often go for fruit juice because it’s natural, they tell us it  will contribute to 1 of our 5 a day and we assume fruit juice is always going to be the best option, particularly when it comes to children.

I am afraid to say, this is not always the case. Fruit juices can provide lots of valuable vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C  but we need to be very careful how much we drink and also think about when we drink them because of their sugar content. In actual fact, it makes scary reading as to how much sugar is found within our soft drinks and what makes this even worse is what I read yesterday about sugar in ready meals…………but let’s save that for later………..

How much sugar are we allowed?

The World Health Organisation recommends we limit our sugar intake to 10% of our total calorie intake a day. This is about 50g for an adult but now there is a real push to cut this in half to 5% of our calorie intake, or 25g/day in total (that’s about 5 teaspoons). Last week, recommendations were released that say we should all limit our intake of fruit juice to just 1 glass (~150ml) a day but based on what you are going to read next, cutting down our sugar intake could still be very tricky…….

So what’s all the fuss about soft drinks?

Soft drinks include all non-alcoholic, water-based flavoured drinks, fizzy or still. Water will be the main ingredient, followed by a sweetening agent, an acid and a flavour. These ingredients can include varying levels of sugar, artificial sweeteners, or both. Fruit juice, fruit and other flavourings, acidity regulators, colourings, preservatives, carbon dioxide and additives, such as caffeine  can all get poured into the mix. Flavoured milks and milkshakes can also contain a lot of added sugar so surely 100% pure fruit juice must be better if it doesn’t contain all these additives or added sugar? Yes and no………

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Now I would always choose a 100% fruit juice with bits in (and dilute it a bit) over a can of fizzy drink anyday, but we need to be aware how much sugar they contain – a standard glass of  orange juice (~150ml) can contain 5 teaspoons of sugar! However, when you read the back of a fruit juice carton, they often ‘suggest’ a serving of 250ml – that means you are having around 9 teaspoons of sugar! Now it’s not all bad as this will count as 1 of our 5 recommended daily portions of fruit (and vegetables) a day BUT it can never be more than this, no matter how much we have. The processing that takes place to make fruit juice (i.e. squeezing, pulping etc.) removes the fibre so you just don’t get the benefits that fibre brings when we eat the whole fruit. Cloudy drinks or those with ‘bits’ in will at least have some of the fruit pulp in there, so will give you a little of fibre. This is why smoothies can provide up to 2 of your 5 a-day, as they contain more of the gubbins.

I would also suggest if you choose to buy a fruit juice, you go for the 100% ‘not from concentrate‘ stuff.  There will be no added water, sugar, or preservatives but I appreciate they can be expensive. Although juice ‘made from concentrate’ does not count towards your 5 a-day (the fruit is squeezed, the water extracted then added back in before being pasteurized and packaged), it is cheaper and it is still going to be better than many other soft drinks, particularly if diluted.

You also might think that the sugar in fruit juice is a better sort of sugar than that added to soft drinks.  I am talking about fructose in fruit but in actual fact it doesn’t matter whether the sugars you drink come from fruit juice, smoothies or fizzy drinks, sugar is sugar and irrespective of the source. Your body does not know the difference, that’s why we  need to cut down on all sugar, including fructose and the sugary drinks we consume.

Soft drinks, flavoured milks and fruit juice are all associated with dental health problems and can contribute to obesity. Drinks containing sugar will increase the risk of dental decay particularly if consumed between meals so it is always best to drink them at meal times only. Frequent consumption of soft drinks (especially if sipped from a bottle) either sugared or sugar-free have also been linked to erosion of tooth enamel through the acids present in the added fruit extracts or those added to make the drink fizzy. One of the concerns at the moment with regards to drinking more soft drinks these days is that children are drinking less plain milk as a consequence. Milk is an important source of calcium for children so reducing children’s calcium intake, may lower bone mineral density and increase risk of bone fractures in later life.

The fact that schools don’t permit children to have certain soft drinks whilst at school is a help (they are allowed plain water (still or sparkling), low-fat milk (or plain non-dairy alternatives), fruit juice, vegetable juice, plain yoghurt drinks or flavoured low-fat milk) but they are still allow flavoured milks.  To give you an example, a Starburst Strawberry flavoured milk (400ml) contains 42g sugar and 288 calories! Do not be fooled this is a healthy drink because it is milk based. At 10.5g of sugar per 100ml, this drink is as sugary as Coke!

And what about the drinks that children buy whilst outside of school? Every day I am horrified to see kids with bottles or cans of fizzy drink for breakfast on their way to school and again on their way home in the afternoon. I wonder if they were able to nip out the school gates at lunchtime and get some more then too?

Something that I am worried about is how we give fruit juices and smoothies to our children, thinking we are doing the right thing. We try hard to not give them too many sweet treats and encourage them to eat their fruit and vegetables. But if you, like me have a fussy toddler who decides he won’t eat apples or oranges any more, why not give them a fruit juice to get it in them in some form at least?  I know many moms who go to the expense of getting their children smoothies because the label clearly says 2 of your 5 a day but I can guarantee you wouldn’t if you knew that a 250ml’ innocent’ smoothie sat in the fridge contained over 34g sugar! Innocent even make special smoothies just for kids. A 180ml pouch typically contains 22g of sugar, that’s nearly 5 teaspoons! Yet we don’t think about that when we spend the £3 on them, we are thinking wow, these are just pure fruit, they must be good.  We certainly wouldn’t dream of giving them 2 glazed doughnuts (I hope!) that has the equivalent amount of sugar!

Eating the whole fruit is so much better. The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugar is contained within the structure of the fruit, i.e. the fibre.  This fibre slows down the digestion of the fruit which slows the release of these sugars into the bloodstream. When fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released and can damage teeth, especially if juice is drunk frequently. And watch out for “juice drinks” which can contain as little as 5% fruit juice. These DO NOT count as one of your 5 a day.

How much sugar are we consuming?

Sugar has been in the news again very recently as results from the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) were released last week. Commissioned by the Food Standards Agency & Department of Health, dietary data is collected from 1000 adults and children every year, that represents the UK population. Surveys like these are invaluable as the information they provide helps inform food policy to help improve the health of our diet for the future.

The latest NDNS survey found the following information:

  • All age groups exceeded the recommendation that added sugar should be no more than 11% of our daily calorie intake.
  • Children and teenagers consume ~40% more added sugar than the recommended daily allowance. Fruit juice and soft drinks were identified as the main culprits.
  • Among children under 10, added sugar made up nearly 15% of their calorie intake, while for those aged 11 to 18, nearly 16% of their calories came from added sugar.
  • Among adults, added sugar made up 12% of their intake.
  • For boys under 10, fruit juice accounted for 15% of their daily added sugar and other drinks a further 17%.
  • For girls the same age, fruit juice accounted for 12% and other drinks 16% of added sugar.
  • As children got older, the proportion from soft drinks including juice rose, to 42% for boys, and 38% for girls.
  • On average, boys ate three portions of fruit and vegetables a day rather than the recommended five, and girls 2.7 portions.
  • Adults under 64 managed an average of 4.1 portions while over-65s averaged 4.6 portions.

To get a real picture about what I am talking about, here is a list (taken and shortened from the Telegraph last month) of the worst soft drinks with their sugar content.  This is shocking reading. Just imagine sprinkling this number of teaspoons on your breakfast cereal or adding it to your morning cuppa. I don’t think even a builder could put >20 spoons of sugar in his tea!

Costa red berry cooler (610ml cup) 24 tsp
Costa tropical fruit (610ml cup) 23
Costa mango and passionfruit (610ml cup) 17
Caffè Nero fruit booster – rasberry, orange and green tea (655ml cup) 17
Starbucks rasberry blackcurrent frappuccino (591ml cup) 14
Starbucks mango passion fruit frappuccino (591ml cup) 13
McDonald’s strawberry and banana iced fruit smoothie (500ml) 13
McDonald’s mango and pineapple iced fruit smoothie (500ml cup) 13
Pret a Manger beet beautiful juice (400ml bottle) 12
McDonald’s Fruitizz (500ml cup) 12
Caffè Nero fruit booster – mango and passionfruit (590ml cup) 11
Pure Pret apple 330ml 9
Pret a Manger mango smoothie (250ml) 8
Source: Telegraph analysis (1tsp= 4g sugar)  
These ‘eateries’ certainly don’t advertise this aspect of their drinks on the counter in big bold letters!
It’s not over yet, here’s the really bad news………

Which gave a press release yesterday that ready meals contain more sugar than a chocolate bar. I know my halo is shining as I just don’t eat ready meals but it frightens me that many people who rely on these meals (for whatever reason) will be unknowingly consuming their entire recommended daily allowance of sugar in one meal.  Why would anyone think their dinner contains more sugar than a chocolate bar?!

Looking at part of the list (below), there is  a mixture of famous brands alongside supermarket own brands but the shocker is Weight  Watchers! A so-called healthy meal that is low in fat contains 22.5g sugar. Read my previous post the truth about low fat foods. I usually say a teaspoon is 5g and I have added the number of teaspoons (tsp) into the table)

Brand and Meal



Sugar per 100g (g)

Sugar per pack (g)

Sainsbury’s Sweet & Sour

Chicken with Rice



50.7 (>10tsp)

Tesco Everyday Value Sweet & Sour Chicken with Rice



48.4 (>9tsp)

Sainsbury’s Crispy Sweet & Sour

Chicken with Rice



37.3 (>7tsp)

Tesco Thai Chicken Pad Thai

with Rice Noodles



37.8 (>7tsp)

Waitrose Sweet & Sour Chicken

with Rice



38.92 (nearly 8tsp)

Marks & Spencer Cantonese

Sweet & Sour Chicken with Rice



33.6 (>6 tsp)

Morrisons Kitchen Oriental

Sweet & Sour Chicken

& Egg Fried Rice



31 (>6 tsp)

Asda Sweet and Sour

Chicken and Egg Fried Rice



30.2 (6 tsp)

Uncle Ben’s Rice Time

Sweet and Sour



28 (>5 tsp)

Tesco Healthy Living

Duck & Hoisin Noodles



23.4 (>5 tsp)

Weight Watchers Heinz

Signature Recipes

Sweet Chilli Chicken


7 g

22.5 (>4 tsp)

To compare, a standard size Dairy Milk has 25.5g of sugar and a standard can of Coca-Cola has 35g of sugar​.

So I reckon this idea of putting warning labels on food like they do with cigarette packs might just work. It might help open people’s eyes about what’s really in their food.

If you take anything away from this post do this:

  • Drink more water or plain low-fat milk
  • Limit your fruit juice to a 150ml serving ~ half a cup
  • Dilute your fruit juice (by 50% for children)
  • Drink it at meal times only
  • Don’t sip out of a bottle
  • Try vegetable juice! It has a lower sugar content
  • Eat the whole fruit
  • Eat more vegetables – aim of 3 portions of veg and 2 of fruit to get your 5 a-day
  • Check food labels for sugar content – avoid red foods / drinks on the traffic light labels on packs
  • Avoid a sweet and sour ready meal like the plague!

Does anyone have any other examples of nightmare sugary foods to share?

May 2014


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