The science of sugar

Last week we opened up discussion of a potential sugar tax, asking for your insights and thoughts as we begin to explore this contentious issue. But to properly get to grips with the idea of a sugar tax, it’s important to understand the science behind the sugar tax, and what it is that sugar does and doesn’t do to our bodies.

Firstly: there are two kinds of sugar: naturally occurring sugars and free sugars. The former, as you would expect, occur naturally in food, mostly fruit and milk. The latter are sugars that we add to food and drink, as well as sugar that’s found naturally in syrups, honey, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates. When we talk about sugar tax, we’re almost always dealing with a tax on these free sugars.

There’s a lot of debate over what a healthy amount of sugar is, and there’s a lot of confusing information out there. Let us break it down for you, based on the official government guidelines on safe amounts of sugar as well as the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s (SACN) recommendations.

The average adult should have a maximum amount of 90g of sugar per day (21 teaspoons).

Children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g of sugar per day (5 teaspoons).

Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g of sugar per day (6 teaspoons).

Children aged 11 years and up should have no more than 30g of sugar per day (7 teaspoons)

In general, the SACN recommends that sugar be only 5% of our energy intake per day.

But of course, things aren’t this simple. What size is an “average” adult? A 6 foot man may require more sugar than a 4 foot woman. And there’s a big difference between a highly active child who spends all day running around and participates in as many team sports as they can get their hands on, and a child who is more of the indoor type, preferring to race virtual cars than their playmates.

It’s important to look at health guidelines. But people need to take their health into their own hands, in a considered and thoughtful way. Many of the arguments against sugar tax are not around economic or ethical grounds but instead moral ones: we must understand the right to consume what we like as one of agency, and people are frequently wary of a “nanny state”, who will tell adults what they can and cannot eat. Surely, individuals with their individual needs, are more aware of what they should and shouldn’t take into their bodies than any government board.

It’s arguments like these that we’ll be looking into next in our sugar series, as we continue to ‘get savvy about sugar’! For now, though, we’ll end with the note that, like all things, sugar in abundance can be an unhealthy thing. Make sure to look at government health guidance, consult with your doctor, and look at the way your body processes food and sugars in order to work out what’s the healthy amount for you!