Should we be worried about sugar in grain foods?
In the last few years we’ve seen a surge of interest and concern around sugar, with countless books, television shows, movies and articles encouraging us to be more aware of the sugar in our food and drinks. But is this focus on sugar really necessary and should it guide our food choices? Read more in our latest hot topic…
Sugar: more than just the white stuff?
General guidelines state that there are two kinds of sugar: intrinsic and free sugars. Intrinsic sugars are those that are naturally occurring and are also found in nutritious whole foods like milk, fruit and vegetables. Free sugars are any sugars that are added by the manufacturer or consumer to food and drinks, plus sugars which are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates¹.
Intrinsic sugars are naturally occurring and are found in nutritious whole foods like milk, fruit and veg.
What are the consequences of eating sugar?
There is currently no high quality evidence to confidently link sugar itself with chronic disease, other than increasing our risk of dental cavities. New research published in 2017 did find a link between sugars and weight gain, but this was mostly due to high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks. This research highlights the problem with focusing on a single nutrient, rather than looking at what we eat as a whole. We know that sugar is found in a range of foods, with varying nutritional values and overall diet quality is likely to be a greater predictor of chronic disease, over individual nutrients.
There is currently no high quality evidence which confidently links sugar with chronic disease.
So how much sugar should we be eating?
Sugar recommendations vary globally, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a free sugar intake of less than 10 per cent of total energy¹, to help reduce risk of dental cavities and weight gain.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines don’t recommend a specific value or figure in relation to our total energy intake, but do indicate that we should “limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars, such as confectionery, sugar-sweetened drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters and energy and sports drinks.”
The WHO recommends keeping free sugar intake under 10% of our total energy intake¹.
How do Australians fare compared to the guidelines?
The average Australian consumes almost 11 per cent of their energy from free sugars, just exceeding the World Health Organisation guidelines of 10 per cent, with 80 per cent of these sugars coming from nutrient-poor discretionary foods like pastries and cakes, not core grain foods such as breads and breakfast cereals. Other leading sources of sugar in Australian diets were sugar itself, honey and syrups, muffins and confectionery.
The majority of sugar intake in Australian diets comes from discretionary food choices like pastries, cakes and muffins.
What about grains?
It’s clear that sugar in grain foods is a concern for many Australians – one of the top four reasons for avoiding bread in 2017 was concern around added sugars² and a recent study revealed that 67% of Australians believed everyday sliced bread contained added sugar3. But Australians needn’t worry – core grain foods contribute only a small amount of total sugars to our diets:
- Breakfast cereals contribute just 3.4 per cent of daily total sugar intake4
- Breads (including sweet breads) contribute only 2.4 per cent of total and 0.4 per cent of free sugar intakes daily4
Additionally, the 2015-16 GLNC Bread Audit revealed that 95% of white and wholemeal bread loaves, 76% of rolls and flatbreads and 100% of crumpets and English muffins on Australian supermarket shelves are low in sugar (≤5g per 100g)4.
On top of this, we know that core grain foods, including breads and breakfast cereals, are the leading contributors of nutrients including fibre, folate, thiamine, iron, magnesium and iodine to the Australian diet. Whole grain foods have also been shown to reduce risk of chronic disease and early death5,6, so including them as part of a balanced diet every day is a step towards good health.
95% of white and wholemeal loaves on Australian supermarket shelves are low in sugar4.
The bottom line…
Sugar is found in both nutritious whole foods and nutrient-poor discretionary foods, so it’s not a clear cut case. Some core foods, like milk, fruit and vegetables and some grain foods do have small amounts of free sugars, but they are also highly nutritious, so shouldn’t be avoided for their sugar content alone. Conversely, discretionary foods like soft drinks, confectionery and ice cream are high in free sugars, but contribute few other nutrients. Given that the latter foods make up 80% of Australian’s free sugar intake, it’s clear that core foods need not be avoided for fear of sugar.
Core whole grain foods have been shown to reduce risk of chronic disease and early death5,6.
- Australian Health Survey: Consumption of added sugars, 2011-12 Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2016.
- 2017. GLNC Consumption & Attitudes Study. Unpublished. 2017.
- 2014. GLNC Consumption & Attitudes Study. Unpublished. 2014.
- Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC). GLNC 2016 Australian Bread Product Audit. Unpublished. 2015-2016.
- The Grains & Legumes Health Report. Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council; 2010.
- Aune D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, Fadnes LT, Boffetta P, Greenwood DC, et al. Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Bmj. 2016;353.