By Said Al-Rawahi


The World Health Organisation has made a strong recommendation that we all reduce the amount of free sugar that we consume, but how easy is it to achieve this goal? Free sugar intake is a complex behaviour that involves not only the decisions we make as individuals but decisions made by food producers, policy makers and politicians.  Sugar is added to food and drinks not only by us individually. So if we wish to reduce free sugar intake, a wide range of influential factors should be considered.

Free Sugar intake of more than 10% of the total energy intake per day can lead to many diseases including tooth decay and obesity. Therefore, the WHO suggests that a reduction to 5% during the lifespan of a person will prevent and reduce many diseases. Free sugar intake of 5% of the total energy consumed is equivalent to 7-8 teaspoons (35 g) of sugar for men and 5-6 teaspoons (25 g) for women.

Our study sought to explore peoples’ understanding of, and behaviour towards their sugar intake.  We conducted interviews with people to explore the factors that might help them to reduce their free sugar intake. Our study revealed that there are many factors within the individual that affect sugar intake and that these interact with the context in which the person lives. Examples of factors within the individuals include knowledge of foods and drinks that have more sugar than the recommendation and knowledge of food and drinks that contribute to tooth decay. For example, some people find the term ‘free sugar’ difficult to understand:

“I have no knowledge of what the term free sugar means…. Yeah I don’t have any educational about sugar”  (participant-W3)

Others understand the colour coding scheme in current use, but don’t know how to incorporate it into their everyday life:

“thinking  about now I don’t actually know what green means I just know that means good but I don’t know what  the cut off is for each one.” (Participant-WT14)

Contextual influences such as the cost of food and the availability of health options are important considerations:

” For example, they have a lot of vegetable which one I think its a 60 p value and then like right at the front of the store as soon as you go in my store anyway so that influence me to choose that vegetables.” (Participant-WT7).

“I think if I wasn’t too worry about the money at that time I would go for a healthier option.”(Participant-WT1)

“from what I have read it’s a complicated thing you know how they put it and then the  difference in  different  kind of sugars,  the truth  is even having read about it I don’t understand that much about so I would rarely  look at the labels.” (participant WT24).

“No I don’t think so because I, you could  end up with an awful lot of information on a page on the front in the base so and also  if it says the red and green  that doesn’t always help” (Participants-WT26)  

It is vitally important to reduce intake of free sugars however improving knowledge alone will not be successful unless the external environmental factors support the change. Reducing free sugar intake is a complex process which required understanding of the behaviour and then developing interventions that tackle reduce barriers and increase facilitators.