Free and non-free sugar

We see 'no refined sugar' frequently boasted about on the packets of our favourite 'healthy' food products, but what does this actually mean, and does the science add up? Actually, nutritionists and dietitians are in agreement that we need to move away from referring to sugar as 'refined' and 'unrefined', and instead use the terms 'free' and 'non-free' sugar.

What's the difference?

Non-free sugar 

Non-free sugar is sugar naturally contained within the cell structure of food. For example, sugar in fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, grains, and the lactose in dairy products. Because these sugars are contained within the cell wall, our bodies have to work harder to release them. This means we don't get such an elevation in blood sugar levels. Moreover, and I'm sure you can tell from the foods I've listed, these non-free sugars are not something to limit or avoid. Many of these food items are highly nutritious and contain plenty of fibre (which most of us in the UK don't get enough of), as well as vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Free sugar

On the other hand, free sugars are sugars that are not contained within the cell structure of food. These are often the sugars added to food such as sugars added to baked goods, or sugars that might be released from the cell structure during processing. For example, when fruit is turned into fruit juice.

When public health campaigns talk about reducing sugar intake, they are talking about free sugars. As these sugars are not contained within the cell, they can cause a more rapid rise in blood sugar levels. They are also associated with tooth decay and, often, less nutritious foodstuffs.

Where does refined sugar come in?

It's important to mention that so-called 'healthy' sugars, including honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave, brown rice syrup, etc etc, are free sugars. When brands label products as containing no refined sugar, it doesn't really make sense, because these free sugars act the same as table sugar once inside the body.

How much?

The NHS recommends looking for foods that contain less than 5g free sugar per 100g. 

  • Adults: less than 30g free sugar per day, which equated to roughly seven sugar cubes. 
  • Children: less than 24g per day, roughly six cubes.
  • Children four to six years: less than 19g per day, roughly five cubes.

Does this mean I have to avoid free sugar completely?

In my opinion, no. Research shows that when we restrict food items, we often want them more, and can end up feeling out of control and overdoing it. Anyone who's overdone the quality street on Christmas day because they finally allow themselves some 'off-limits' chocolate will know this feeling well.

What's more important than getting weighed down in the numbers is thinking about a diverse and varied diet full of plenty of different foods and food groups. Of course, you don't want sugar to be the only thing you eat, as I'm sure you wouldn't feel good. But giving yourself permission to enjoy it free from guilt is also important. 

To conclude 

The promotion of food items being free from 'refined sugar' is misleading. Sugar should be classified as 'free' and 'non-free' sugar. It's an excess of free sugars that may be damaging to health, however, enjoying something sweet every now and then as part of a balanced diet is totally ok.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Isa Robinson

Isa Robinson is a qualified Nutritional therapist with an additional Msc in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition from UCL. She has a specialist interest in Eating Disorders, Disordered Eating and nutrition for mental health. Her approach is holistic and personalised, helping clients to rediscover trust in nourishing their bodies.… Read more

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