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What are sugars?

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Although we may think of ‘sugar’ as one thing, there are several types of sugars. 


Glucose and fructose join together to make sucrose, which is what we normally call ‘sugar’ - it's used for baking or putting in tea or coffee. Other sugars include lactose (naturally present in milk) and maltose (found in cereal grains).


Sugars can come in different forms; they can be naturally occurring like in fruit and milk, or they can be added to different foods and drinks. ‘Free sugars’ are those added to foods and drinks and also those found naturally in fruit juices, purees, honey and syrups.


The type of sugars we should be eating less of in our diets are ‘free sugars’.

Free sugars include:

  • All added sugars in foods and drinks. These may be added in food manufacturer, a chef or by us at home and include the sugars we would find in biscuits, chocolate, and other sweet foods
  • Sugars present in honey, syrups (like golden syrup, maple syrup or agave syrup), nectars, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

Free sugars do not include: 

  • Naturally occurring sugars in dairy foods like milk or yogurt or in fresh, cooked, or dried fruit and vegetables.


"Sugary foods and drinks can have large amounts of calories, and so having too much of them can lead to weight gain and obesity. Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes."


Sarah Coe, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

Which foods and drinks have free sugars?

Free sugars are found in:

Sugary drinks

Including fizzy drinks and energy drinks, which may be sweetened only with sugar or a combination of sugars and sweeteners.

Fruit drinks, juices and smoothies

They do have some vitamins, minerals and natural sugars, but these are still classed as free sugars so it’s best to keep these to one small glass (150ml) a day.

Sweet foods

Such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, chocolate and sweets are made with some kind of sugar, whether that is table sugar (sucrose), fruit purees, syrups or honey.

Honey and syrups

Even though these may be natural, they still have free sugars.

Fruit and flavoured yogurts

These foods have some natural sugars from milk or fruit but may also have some sugars added to them.

Key facts about Sugar

  • Sugars can be naturally occurring like those in fruit, or they can be added to different foods and drinks.
  • ‘Free sugars’ are those added to foods and drinks and also those found naturally in fruit juices, purees, honey and syrups.
  • We should be eating less foods and drinks with ‘free sugars’.
  • Sugary foods and drinks can have large amounts of calories. Having too many calories in our diet can lead to weight gain and obesity.
  • In the UK we are consuming more sugar than is recommended.
  • The main sources of sugar in the UK diet are sugary drinks, fruit juice, cakes, biscuits, desserts, sweet spreads and sweets. 

Sugar FAQs

The government makes a distinction between sugars in fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, pastes and purées and those in the whole fruit and veg.


This is because sugars, such as those in juices and smoothies, can be consumed more easily in larger quantities than sugars as whole foods. For example, we can drink a glass of juice or smoothie much quicker than eating a piece of fruit or vegetable. This could lead to an overconsumption of calories and sugars. 


Juices, whole fruit and vegetables also differ in the amount of fibre they contain. Most of the fibre is lost when the fruit or vegetable is juiced. However, fruit juices and smoothies do contain useful micronutrients like vitamin C and a 150ml glass of juice or smoothie does count as one of your 5 A DAY.

All packaged products must provide nutrition information and a list of ingredients, so sugars can’t be ‘hidden’ as they must be listed on pack. 


However, you may find that sugars are sometimes added to products that you do not think of as ‘sweet’ such as ready-made sauces or salad dressings. Sugar is also listed as an ingredient in many recipes.


To make sure you aren't having more sugar than you intend to, be sure to check the nutrition labels of your food and control how much (if any) sugar is added to food you make at home.

Last reviewed October 2023. Next review due October 2026.

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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any individualised advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.