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Honey is classified as a free sugar by the World Health Organisation: “Free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

A teaspoon of honey
This is because, like all available carbohydrates (sugars and starches), honey provides a fuel for bacteria in our mouths that may cause tooth decay. Also, while it provides small amounts of the minerals potassium, calcium and magnesium, honey is more energy dense than table sugar (sucrose), providing 94 kilojoules (23 Calories) in a level teaspoon compared to table sugars 67 kilojoules (16 Calories). So, despite popular perception, the typical honey that you will find in your local supermarket is not really any better than table sugar from a human nutrition perspective anyway. However, it does have a unique flavour and texture that makes it ideal for use in a range of delicious recipes.

It’s important to remember that the WHO Guidelines recommend that we consume less than 10% of energy from free sugars each day. They do not say that we need to completely avoid all free sugars, or foods and drinks that contain free sugars. For a typical adult consuming 8,700 kJ (2,080 Calories) each day, 10% of energy from free sugars is less than 54g of free sugars, or approximately 13 level teaspoons a day. It’s important to note that these guidelines are for the total day’s food and drink intake – not for individual foods or beverages. Evidence-based guidelines for individual foods or drinks are yet to be developed.

There is no need to obsess over every gram of sugars in foods or drinks to achieve the WHO recommendation – focus on the major dietary sources instead. Simply saving sugar sweetened drinks ((soft drinks such as soda pop or fizzy drink), cordials, energy and sports drinks), cakes (including muffins, scones and cake-type desserts) and confectionery (lollies, sweets or candy; chocolate) for special occasions (parties, religious festivals) will help most people to achieve this goal based on recent national dietary surveys.

Even people with diabetes do not need to completely avoid sugars – they too simply need to follow the WHO Guideline and aim to consume less than 10% of energy from free sugars like the rest of us. The reason why is simple – essentially all available carbohydrate (starches and sugars) is eventually digested, absorbed and metabolised into glucose – the sugar in blood that is characteristic of diabetes. And much of the excess protein that we eat can also be converted to glucose in our liver and released into our blood. So simply avoiding free sugars won’t necessarily improve blood glucose levels – the amount and type (quality) of starch and protein also matters. Finally, a diet proportionately high in saturated fat increases insulin resistance, which in turn affects blood glucose levels. In other words, it’s the whole diet that matters when it comes to optimal blood glucose management – focusing on a single ingredient/nutrient isn’t enough.

What about the sugars in fruit? Fresh, canned and dried fruits and fruit juices are all sources of sugars and energy, and in theory, if consumed in excess, may contribute to weight gain and tooth decay. The reality is, however, that many people struggle to consume the minimum two serves a day according to recent dietary surveys, and the best available scientific evidence for whole fruit and juice do not show an association with weight gain. Both whole fruits and juice can contribute to tooth decay, however.

While limiting our daily free sugars intake to less than 10% of total energy is wise, it does not mean we cannot still enjoy foods and drinks that contain sugars – what we consume, how much we consume, and how frequently we consume foods and drinks that contain sugars is what really counts. History has proven that prohibition doesn’t work. Be mindful instead.

Listen to Alan talk about sugars on Sydney radio station 2GB (Note: there is an advertisement at the beginning of the segment).

Dr Alan Barclay  
Alan Barclay, PhD is a consultant dietitian and chef (Cert III). He worked for Diabetes Australia (NSW) from 1998–2014 . He is author/co-author of more than 30 scientific publications, and author/co-author of  The good Carbs Cookbook (Murdoch Books), Reversing Diabetes (Murdoch Books), The Low GI Diet: Managing Type 2 Diabetes (Hachette Australia) and The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners (The Experiment, New York).

Contact: You can follow him on Twitter or check out his website.