Sugar: What is the problem?

Sugar is one of the foods that is often vilified and blamed for a number of human ills. Much of the views about the ills of sugar on the internet and social media are extreme and includes being poisonous, addictive and causing cancer, skin problems and diabetes. Despite this bad reputation, sugar continues to play a significant role in diets around the world. Most of us have often wondered what is best; cut down on our sugar intake or cut it out completely?

What is sugar?

Let’s begin with an explanation of what sugar is to help clarify much of the confusion. Sugar is a simple type of carbohydrate and comes in many different forms, all of which taste sweet.  Other classes of carbohydrates include starches and dietary fibre found in cereals (maize, wheat, millet etc.) and tubers (yam, cassava etc.).  Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in human diets.

Another term, “Free Sugars”1was coined by the World Health Organization (WHO) to define sugars that have an impact on our health.  Free sugars are all sugars that are either added to foods (such as tea and porridges) by you or sugars added by manufacturers to foods such as soft drinks, biscuits and jams.  Other names for sugars added to foods is sucrose, glucose, fructose and honey, to name a few. It does not include the sugars found in whole fruit and vegetables. To aid understanding, free sugars are described as sugar in this article.

Is sugar bad for you?

This is one of the popular questions dietitians and other health professionals are often asked during consultations with patients. To answer this question, let’s take a look at a summary of the current research evidence on consumption of sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages as outlined by two authoritative reports;The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) Report on Carbohydrates and Health from The UKand the WHO Recommendations for Intake of Sugars by Adults and Children1.

  • Adults who consume less sugars have lower body weight.
  • Eating more sugars increases overall energy intake in individuals who are not on a restricted diet. Increasing the amount of sugars in the diet is associated with a comparable weight increase.
  • Consumption of sugars is associated with increased risk of tooth decay
  • Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus.
  • Children with the highest intakes of sugar-sweetened drinks are more likely to be overweight or obese than children with a low intake of sugar-sweetened drinks.

Both reports do not provide evidence to support the many claims of other human ills often directly linked to sugar such as cancer and attention deficit disorder in children etc

In conclusion, sugar is not necessarily bad for you.

It’s the amount and how often you eat sugar that matters. If you consume too much sugar at the expense of other foods, your diet can be less nutritious. Foods and drinks that are high in added sugars tend to be high in calories, but lower in other nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre. The WHO report and SACN report both agree that for optimum health benefits, intake of sugars is best kept at 5% of total dietary energy. This is equivalent to 6 teaspoons of sugar on the average but beware that this includes sugars in soft drinks, honey, jam, and processed foods as well as the sugar you add to food.

The take home message

The consumption of all types of sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages including fruit juices and soft drinks/minerals should be minimised.  In a nation where 10.4 billion litres of fruit juice is consumed annually according to a 2011 report3, there is an urgent need for education on the recommended level of sugars and sugars-sweetened beverages to safeguard the health of the population.


  1. World Health Organisation, WHO. Information note about intake of sugars recommended in the WHO guideline for adults and children. Geneva: WHO, 2015.
  2. Scientific Advisory Committee of Nutrition, SACN. Carbohydrates and Health. London: TSO, 2015.
  3. Ghana Business and Finance. (2011). Reviving a dying industry: what will it take for local fruit processors to stage a comeback?