Last month I walked into a shed at Birkenhead that contained 25,000 tonnes of raw sugar.

It was an extraordinary sight. This was just some of the sugar shipped every couple of months to the Chelsea sugar refinery and most of it will go out again in various forms to our supermarket shelves and to food manufacturers.

It's a lot of sugar.

Contrary to what some social media critics suggest, I didn't visit the sugar mountain and then eat the sugar mountain.

Advertisement

I visited because I'm interested in how our food gets from field to plate, and a good factory visit to that end is always educational.

Sugar has been in the spotlight lately. From TV shows to bestselling books, it is a hot topic, the latest dietary demon.

The most recent sugar expose is That Sugar Film, a snappy look at what happens to a normal, healthy guy — actor Damon Gameau — when he eats 40 teaspoons of sugar a day, mostly in drinks, juices, yoghurts, cereals and other foods we might think of as healthy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he gained weight and visceral fat, his cholesterol went up, he had mood swings and developed a fatty liver and bad skin. Removing the sugar saw him go back to normal.

So is quitting sugar the answer to all of our problems? If everyone cut out sugar, would we solve the obesity crisis?

It might be a step in the right direction. But complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

I suspect in aiming for a sugar-free world we may risk ending up with a whole new way of eating badly, as manufacturers respond to demand for less sugar with novel, highly processed, sugar-free junk food.

This is exactly what happened with low-fat food, and it's how we got to a place where our shelves are laden with "low fat" foods full of sugar and devoid of nutrition.

Advertisement

Putting the blame for all our problems on a single nutrient has never been a wise idea. That said, most could do with cutting back on added sugar.

The World Health Organisation suggests no more than 5 per cent of our daily energy should come from "free" sugars — added sugar, syrups, fruit juice and honey.

For an average woman, that's 26g, or around six teaspoons. For an average man, that's 38g, or 9.5 teaspoons. Although that's not much, you don't have to give up all sugar to achieve it. All power to you, if you can truly be sugar-free.

But for most of us it isn't necessary and it's probably not sustainable long term.

Better to aim for a low-sugar diet, and re-frame sugar as it traditionally has been: a treat.

A good place to start cutting is in sugary drinks. These are a shortcut to a lot of added sugar for no nutritional benefit, and it's not hard to see why some health experts call for them to be phased out altogether.

Advertisement

Incidentally, six teaspoons is roughly the sugar you'll get in a can of the new "lower-sugar" Coke Life.

Juices, sports drinks and flavoured water can have just as much (see table above).

Some say sugar "hides" in foods, but that's not necessarily true. Any of us can look at an ingredients list. We can all read a nutrition panel and do a simple sum (1tsp sugar = 4g ).

The trick is understanding that sugar goes by lots of aliases. Fruit juice concentrate; honey; coconut sugar; dextrose; rice malt syrup - these are of dozens of types of sugar.

Don't be fooled by claims of "natural", and ignore front-of-pack and recipe claims of "no added cane sugar" and "refined sugar free".

These claims do not mean a food has no sugar in it.

Advertisement

The best way to avoid getting too much added sugar is by eating fewer processed foods. Fresh fruit is naturally sweet and comes with extra nutrition bonuses, so base your baking and desserts on fruit.

And remember a low-sugar diet is only a great diet if it's also full of colourful veges and nutrient-dense, whole foods. As always, it pays to keep an eye on the big picture.

How much sugar is in...

Niki Bezzant is Editor-in-Chief of Healthy Food Guide magazine and a passionate cook with a lifelong interest in health.