Sugar: The Bittersweet Story

For the past 10 years, the debate about sugar has been raging locally and globally, and it’s no surprise when you read the stats below.

A study by the University of Witswatersrand revealed that South Africans devour between 12 and 24 teaspoons of sugar per day, and four to eight of those are from sugar-sweetened beverages or drinks that have sugar added to them during their processing or making. These include soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, vitamin water drinks and ice teas. A can of Coca-Cola has just more than 8 teaspoons, while a Fanta Grape holds about 10.5 teaspoons, and the average amount in a can of fruit juice is estimated to contain about 9 teaspoons. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends about 12 teaspoons per day, including added sugars – a percentage of less than 10% of grown-ups and children’s total energy intake. “In South Africa, that is 202 calories based on the recommended calorie intake for women and 250 calories for men”. ( However, a 5% sugar intake reduction is claimed to provide added health benefits.

Sugar tax

South Africa was not out of the loop on the debate, and we saw the results of these when our government introduced the “sugar tax,” which came into effect on the 1st of April 2018. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) started collecting the Sugary Beverages Levy (SBL), which is fixed at 2.1 cents per gram of the sugar content that exceeds 4 grams per 100ml, which means the first 4 grams per 100ml are levy free. The levy was introduced by government “to prevent and control non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, hypertension, asthma, stroke, cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc. and assist in the prevention and control of obesity”. Read the full press release here.

sugarNot all sugar is made the same!

So, how do we make sure we don’t end up eating or drinking more of the sweet stuff than is recommended? As always, the first step is knowing the facts. Here’s the breakdown of different sugars and what to look out for when choosing your diet.

Natural sugar, in the form of a carbohydrate and commonly found in fruits (fructose) and milk (lactose), is part of a healthy diet and safe to consume. They also contain nutrients such as vitamins and fibre and tend to be low in calories and sodium, which makes them part of a balanced diet.

Added sugar is typically refined from sugar cane or sugar beets that gets added to almost all foods, i.e. processed foods to make it sweeter, prolong its shelf life or change its colour, form or texture. This is the type to avoid. Foods like cereals, flavoured milk or yogurt, some fruit juices, energy drinks, fruit bars, bread, salad dressings, sauces and ready- made meals, amongst others, mostly contain added sugars, which have been associated with lifestyle diseases. What is important to note is that added sugars have no nutritional value. While they can be added to nutritious foods, they simply add to one’s calorie intake spike blood sugar levels.

Foods recommended for a low-sugar lifestyle include fruits and vegetables, because of their natural sugar content, full-fat versions of foods (as low-fat may contain added sugars), whole foods (unrefined and unprocessed foods). Try cook your own meals to control the amount of sugar you consume, eat plain yoghurts as opposed to flavoured ones, and try raw oats for cereal along with dried fruits, nuts and dates for snacks and dessert.

waterLow-sugar beverages: Water and flavoured water – flavoured with cucumbers, mint or lemon – fruit and herbal teas or unsweetened tea and black or flat white coffee.

While some argue that sugar does not cause diseases like diabetes, research has shown that being overweight or obese (sometimes caused by sugar intake) increases the risk for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer by four to eight times. What’s worse, it’s addictive, and like any other addictive substances we should aim for moderation. While we were doing research on this topic, we came across Robert Lustig, a researcher and expert in fructose metabolism and a former paediatric endocrinologist, who has an interesting take on the subject. He went so far as to gain his Masters in Studies of Law because he believes that educating people about sugar from a scientific standpoint is only half the equation, and the other half involves changing policy.

The main message: Avoid hidden sugars, read food labels and consume in moderation.


Africa Check – SA’s Proposed Sugar Tax

Jama Network

Africa Check – Are South Africans the 8th highest sugar consumers in the world?


Soil Association

South African Revenue Services

Disclaimer: External information referenced is for purposes of this article only and does not imply partnership or association with the organisation or its specific view point.

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