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Sweet little lies: Sugar myths vs facts

The truth might not be what you're expecting...

Two young girls eating watermelon while laughing and laying on the grass
Two young girls eating watermelon while laughing and laying on the grass

Something has been happening in the world of nutrition in recent years. The focus has come off fat as the primary cause of obesity and numerous other health problems, with the finger now being squarely pointed at a sweet little culprit: sugar.

An Australian Bureau of Statistics report about Australian sugar consumption showed the average Aussie consumes 60 grams of white sugar every day, equating to a whopping 14 teaspoons.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that added sugars make up no more than 10% of an adult’s daily energy intake, with 5% the ideal amount for a healthy diet – that’s about six teaspoons.

But don’t put down your favourite treat just yet. We’ve looked into some of the most common sugar myths, and the truth might not be what you were expecting.

Myth 1: Sugar isn’t addictive

Fact: In a way, it actually is.

Foods high in sugar can have an addictive effect; eating them can trigger the reward system in our brain, causing the release of dopamine. That’s why it can be tough to step away from that packet of Tim Tams.

But sugar alone isn’t to blame. “It's not just sugar that creates a highly palatable food, it's also salt and fat,” explains Jazmyn McKinnie, National Nutrition and Wellness Manager at Live Life Get Active. Live Life Get Active is a charity supported by nib foundation, offering free wellbeing and nutritional programs to help address obesity, diabetes and mental health issues among Australians.

“If you think about eating a piece of chocolate, it's the combination of the sweet flavour (from the sugar) and creamy flavour (from the fat) and the way it melts in your mouth that makes it feel 'addictive’,” Jazmyn says. “If you have a bowl of pure sugar sitting in front of you, you're probably less likely to sit there and eat it by the spoonful, but when it’s a bowl of ice cream, you may find it hard to stop.”

Related: The importance of happiness chemicals

Myth 2: Sugar causes cavities, obesity and diabetes

Fact: It certainly doesn’t help, but it isn’t the only risk factor.

Sadly, what your dentist told you when you were a child was right – lollies are bad for your teeth. When we eat sugar, oral bacteria feed on it and release acid as a by-product, which attacks tooth enamel. That alone should be motivation to cut back on sugar for anyone who’s had a filling or two.

As far as your waistline goes, your liver is clever at metabolising sugar to be used for energy, but excess sugar is converted into fat in the liver, raising your risk of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

Sugar isn’t the main cause of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular concerns, with your lifestyle, genetics and overall diet playing a big role. For more information, check out our article on nine doctor-approved ways to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.

Smiling women laughing as they eat ice creams

Myth 3: You should say farewell to fruit.

Fact: Don’t throw out the fruit bowl.

Sugar is added to many foods but occurs naturally in some. It’s pretty telling that the WHO guidelines for sugar consumption don’t refer to those naturally present in fresh fruits, vegetables and milk. That’s because fruit is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet.

“Sugar is not the devil. It's naturally found in foods that give us energy and help our brain function properly,” Jazmyn says, adding that there’s no need to restrict yourself when it comes to fruit. “Fruit in its wholesome natural form is full of fibre and lots of antioxidants that keep your body strong and healthy.”

Myth 4: Sugar is easy to avoid

Fact: Check your labels – it isn’t as easy as it seems.

Sugar is the master of multiple identities, making it impossible for the average person to know if their favourite snack is packed with the sweet stuff. Here are some of its other names: agave nectar, cane juice crystals, dextrose, galactose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, sucrose and treacle.

“You can find lots of added sugar in cereals, yoghurts, muesli bars, pre-made sauces and dressings; try to choose foods that have less than 15g of sugar per 100g,” Jazmyn advises.

“It's always best to make your own food from scratch using whole ingredients, but this is not always realistic with our busy lifestyles, so try to opt for foods with lower amounts of sugar – if a little bit of sugar in a salad dressing or sauce is going to help you to eat a lot more veggies, then that’s totally okay in my book!”

Myth 5: Sugar alternatives are a healthier option

Fact: In some cases, they can be.

It is true that some types of sugar are better for you – this includes substitutes like coconut sugar, pure maple syrup, raw honey and even a sweetener like Stevia. Sure, they’re still sugar, but the added nutrients they contain are what makes them a superior choice.

However, the added nutrients and potential health benefits don’t give you a free pass to indulge. Even ‘healthy’ treats made with these forms of sugar or sweetener should be consumed in moderation. Some nutritionists swear by using dates and sultanas to naturally sweeten recipes – that way, it’s still a treat, but you’re getting a sweet kick of fibre at the same time.

Infographic showing 1 tsp of sugar per 15g of tomato sauce, 6 tsp of sugar per 50g chocolate, 7 tsp of sugar per 250ml fruit juice, 1.5 tsp of sugar per muesli bar, 9 tsp of sugar per 600ml sports drink

Where to go from here?

The brave among us may have already cut sugar from their diet altogether, but for the rest of us mere mortals, don’t go throwing your sweet treats in the nearest bin just yet. Here are a few simple ways to reduce your sugar intake:

1. Read your labels

You may be surprised to know what’s hiding in the ingredients in products advertising themselves as a ‘healthy’ alternative.

2. Swap it out

A few small changes could make a huge difference. Swap sugar on your cereal for some fresh or dried fruit, swap your white bread for whole-grain varieties, wean yourself off adding sugar to your morning tea or coffee or try a handful of nuts and some fruit instead of a muesli bar.

3. Show some restraint

Moderation is key. Ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs with fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains and dairy and throw in some physical activity for good measure. Like everything in life, it really is all about balance.

“You should never feel like you have to cut anything completely out of your diet; you can enjoy chocolate, ice cream and cakes here and there and don't have to feel guilty about it,” Jazmyn says. “As long as your priority is to fill your body with lots of fruit, veggies and wholesome foods, having a small amount of sugary food here and there is perfectly okay.”

Ready to cut back on the sweet stuff? Try our dietitian-approved range of healthy and delicious recipes – all with no refined sugar.

If you’d like some support with your eating habits or find food causes you distress, visit nib foundation partner Butterfly Foundation, a charity for Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues.