Sugar, the sweet danger you've been ignoring

Sugar, the sweet danger you've been ignoring

There is hidden sugar in what we eat and drink. Here is what you need to know to get sugar-savvy.

Sugar Image 1

HPB Healthy Eating


Everyone loves the festive season with its abundance of dinners, parties and delicious food and drink to indulge in.

For those who throw their diet plans out the window in favour of the annual festive bingeing, it comes with little surprise that the same clothes hanging in the wardrobe will no longer fit post-Chinese New Year. The unpleasant surprise is, this could be the post-festive realisation even for those who continue to judiciously watch what they eat or drink. The culprit could be the hidden sugar in your carefully chosen food and beverages that is silently increasing your total sugar consumption and with it, your daily calorie intake (and your waistline).


While the recent National Nutrition Survey 2018 showed that Singaporeans are generally eating better and consuming fewer calories, high sugar and salt intake remains a concern.

The survey found that total daily sugar intake of an average person is currently 60 grams in 2018, which is the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar! Of these 12 teaspoons, according to the Health Promotion Board, or HPB, six-and-a-half  teaspoons come from drinks, and five-and-a-half from food.

While eradicating sugar completely is almost impossible, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), nutritionally we do not need any free sugars in our diet and it is advisable to eliminate any unnecessary free sugars where possible.

Sugar, the hidden danger
Photo: Shutterstock


Sugars are essentially carbohydrates that occur naturally in a wide range of food such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Additionally, they are used in a number of food processes: as a flavour enhancer in syrups and sauces, as a preservative in canned fruits or cured meats, or in granular form in processed cereals and pre-packaged drinks.

These hidden sugars are common pitfalls of a healthy diet; the unnoticed consumption increases sugar intake and daily calories consumed – one teaspoon (or five grams) of sugar is equivalent to 20 calories – plus, excess sugar can cause a blood sugar spike which leads to a sugar crash and a corresponding craving for more sugar to achieve that same high.

This vicious cycle results in a surplus of sugar which then converts into fats and can bring about the onset of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Sugar, the hidden danger
Photo: Shutterstock

Another thing to note? Sugar is ultimately an empty calorie. While it has the same caloric value as wholegrains and proteins, it lacks nutrients like vitamins B and E, trace minerals and phytochemicals found in wholegrains and the essential amino acids our body needs but can only get from food found in whole fresh proteins. While whole fruits and vegetables, and milk do contain sugar, we should reduce intake of added sugar (e.g. honey, glucose, cane sugar, fructose, corn syrup etc.) as it contributes negatively to any diet. 


While many claim sugar is needed for energy, a better source can be found in the consumption of foods like wholegrains and whole fresh proteins which digest more slowly, keeping one satiated for longer and blood glucose levels balanced.

What does not help as well are the added sugars marketed as “healthier” options but are actually not significantly different from simple, white sugar. For instance brown sugar and glucose (simple sugar) both contain 380kcal per 100g, while honey contains 304kcal per 100g and more calories and carbohydrates than corn syrup, which holds 285kcal per 100g. While brown sugar contains additional minerals such as magnesium, potassium and iron, these nutritional benefits are miniscule.

Sugar, the hidden danger
Photo: Shutterstock

Similarly, while fruit juice may have more nutrients than a single can of sugar-sweetened soda, it has the same effect on our body as it is still sugar. In fact, more than one whole fruit usually goes into making a single serving of juice, which means one ends up consuming more sugar than when eating fresh fruit. A better approach would be to opt for lower sugar drinks like diet or low-calorie options, or drinks labelled with a Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS) to reduce one’s overall sugar intake.


Reducing one’s overall sugar intake is key to maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet. According to the Singapore Ministry of Health, every additional 250ml serving of sugar-sweetened beverage we drink daily increases our risk of diabetes by up to 26 percent, WHO further recommends that simply reducing sugar to five percent of total energy intake, or about five teaspoons of sugar daily, brings about a number of additional health benefits. 

Start by looking carefully at the sodas, fruit juices, and pre-packaged drinks you consumed. Not only are these forms of sugar hard to detect, they are also more easily and rapidly absorbed into the blood stream, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. These spikes, over time, can impair the body’s glycaemic response and lead to increased risk of diabetes regardless of weight gain.

Sugar, the hidden danger
Photo: Shutterstock

A reductive approach does not mean you cannot enjoy your favourite soda, pre-packaged drink or cup of morning kopi. There are plenty of low or no-sugar options available that tastes just as good. At the coffeeshop, simply asking for a “siu dai” (less sugar) version of your morning kopi immediately reduces by about a quarter your overall intake from an estimated four teaspoons of sugar. Or go for the sugar-free “kosong”option! Drinks labelled with the HPB Healthy Choice Symbol (e.g. Seasons Ice Lemon Tea with reduced sugar, F&N Orange Zero) typically contain at least 25 percent less sugar than regular sweetened beverages.

Consider also beverages that use novel sugars like allulose, isomaltulose, or sweeteners like stevia, and sucralose which contain fewer (or zero) calories that do not spike your blood glucose levels or contribute to tooth decay. 

Now that you are sugar-savvy, there is no excuse to reducing your sugar intake. Get rewarded by HPB too when you choose low-sugar options at participating outlets. Consumers stand to earn sure-win rewards such as F&B and shopping vouchers in HPB’s Eat, Drink, Shop Healthy Challenge. Find out more.

Sugar, the hidden danger
Photo: Shutterstock


Reducing your sugar doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Chinese New Year. Here are some ways to enjoy lower-sugar treats.

Drinks: Whether you’re stocking up for your open house or going round to visit relatives, look for drinks labelled with the HCS symbol or hydrate yourself with a naturally sugarless drink: water.

Yusheng (raw fish salad): It’s Chinese New Year and there’s no avoiding the celebratory yusheng toss. Opt for Tunglok’s Prosperity Yusheng, Sin Hwa Dee Fa Cai Yu-Sheng or Chef Chen Green Tea Prosperity Yu-Sheng that contain up to 60% less sugar in its sauce than regular yusheng sauces for a more sensible enjoyment.

Niangao (sweet sticky rice cake): Observing a lower-sugar diet doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the sweet niangao. Tunglok’s version made with 25 percent less sugar tastes exactly the same as regular niangao, and contains fewer calories.

Homemade drinks: For the budding mixologist, rather than using sugar or simple syrup, experiment with fruits (e.g. oranges, apples) and ingredients like goji berries. Click here for some sample recipes.

Do you have something to share? Think you might have better ways to curb Singapore’s sugar consumption? Tell us your view and have your say here. Survey is available until 25 January 2019.