Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard that, as a nation, we're eating far too much sugar, and it's messing with our health.
In fact, according to the most recent Australian Health Survey, Australians are eating an average of 60g of free sugars per day (about 14 teaspoons), which is double the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation of five percent of our total daily energy intake (which works out to be around 30g, or six teaspoons, for most of us).
Not all sugar is created equal
While all sugar is technically 'natural', the truth is that we don't, in most cases, consume it in its natural form, particularly given our current dependence on highly processed foods.
The sugar found naturally in fruit and dairy products such as milk and yoghurt isn't the sugar we need to be worrying about. This naturally occurring sugar comes packaged up with vitamins, minerals and, in the case of fruit, fibre, so it's accompanied by a whole lot of other nutrients we can benefit from. The sugar that's causing all the trouble is referred to as 'free' sugar; sugar that is added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and the sugar naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
We all know that chocolate, lollies, cakes, muffins and soft drink are high in sugar, but much of the free sugar we eat is hidden in processed foods that we often don't even think of as being particularly sweet. Here are some of the most surprising offenders:
It's not just Fruit Loops and Coco Pops that you need to worry about -- most breakfast cereals are laden with sugar. Even those innocent-looking instant porridge sachets can have as much as 8g of sugar per 35g serve -- which means they're one quarter sugar.
Switch to: plain, unflavoured cereals (Weetbix, oats) and add your own sweetness with a bit of fresh or dried fruit.
Marinades such as honey soy, teriyaki or satay can contain as much as 35 percent sugar.
Switch to: homemade versions will generally be much lower in sugar, but if that's not an option, stick to dry marinades, herbs and spices.
Sauces such as tomato sauce and sweet chilli sauce can contain huge amounts of sugar. In fact, most tomato sauce is around 25 percent sugar and sweet chilli a whopping 35 percent.
Switch to: If you're a tomato sauce junkie, try to kick the habit of adding tomato sauce to everything and if you really have to have it, keep it to a minimum. And if you can't live without that chilli kick, switch to plain chilli sauce.
Most types of flavoured yoghurt contain sugar, and it can be a surprising amount -- in fact, a fruit yoghurt can contain up to 30g of sugar (an entire day's worth!). However, bear in mind that some of this sugar (usually about 50 percent) is lactose which is naturally present in milk and yoghurt.
Switch to: Plain natural yoghurt (check the ingredients list for added sugar) and add your own fruit to sweeten it up.
Despite their 'healthy' image, these sorts of drinks usually contain around 22g of sugar per 500ml serve -- that's almost six teaspoons of sugar.
Switch to: sparkling water with some citrus fruit or berries added for flavour.
Muesli or cereal bars
Generally seen as a healthy snack option, these can, in reality, be full of sugar and actually have little nutritional value.
Switch to: a more nutritious, whole food snack such as a small handful of nuts, a piece of fruit or some natural yoghurt.
'Diet' usually means less fat, but not less sugar. Often these products simply replace the fat with more sugar so that the texture and taste is still acceptable.
Switch to: a healthier snack such as fruit, yoghurt or a small handful of nuts.
While we don't often think of peanut butter as tasting sweet, if you swap from a regular peanut butter to one with 'no added sugar' you might change your mind!
Switch to: peanut butter made from 100 percent peanuts.
A few other ways to reduce your sugar intake:
Read labels: the best way to know exactly what's in the food you're eating is to check the nutrition information on the label. First, look at the ingredients list and see whether sugar is listed. If so, take a look at the nutrition information table and check how much sugar is in each serve of that food (be sure to check what a 'serve size' is according to the manufacturer -- it might be very different to your idea of a 'serve'). Four grams of sugar is about one teaspoon.
Remember, if the food contains naturally sweet ingredients such as fruit, milk or yoghurt, some of this sugar will be naturally occurring sugar, which is not distinguished from free sugar.
Kick the soft drink habit: sugary drinks are the very worst culprits when it comes to bumping up our sugar intake. They are a concentrated source of sugar but offer little to no nutritional value while being very easy to drink in large quantities. Wean yourself off by switching to sparkling water with some fruit added for flavour.
Beware low-fat foods: often the fat is replaced with extra sugar to correct the changes in taste and texture, so in actual fact the product is no healthier than the original version (and possibly less so). Make sure you check the label to see exactly what you're getting.