The hidden sugars in our foods

Sugar is the biggest cause of tooth decay – not to mention a host of other health issues. And that ‘healthy’ food you’re eating may be harbouring a sweet secret.

About a third of Australian adults have untreated tooth decay and a quarter have periodontal or gum disease that can lead to tooth loss.

And the amount of sugar we eat is partly to blame, according to the Australian Dental Association.

The World Health Organisation recommends adults have no more than six teaspoons – that’s about 24g – of sugar a day.

But this can be hard to stick to, partly because it’s sometimes hard to know how much sugar is in what we eat and drink.

How much sugar we are eating

The Australian Dental Association says 47 per cent of adults and 73 per cent of teenagers are consuming too much sugar – as much as 14 teaspoons a day.

“Sugar is the biggest cause of tooth decay. It feeds bacteria in our mouth that form acids that can then remove minerals from teeth and cause decay,” says oral health promoter Dr Mikaela Chinotti.

“If people eat sugar over and over again, those sugar hits feed bacteria throughout the day and increase the risk of decay.”

Which surprising foods are full of sugar?

During Dental Health Week (3-9 August), the ADA says it’s time to “get sugar savvy” for the sake of our teeth, and uncovering hidden sugars will help.

“Sugar isn’t just in the foods we expect, like lollies – it’s in foods we don’t expect, like white bread, breakfast cereals, fruit juice and store-bought sauces,” says Dr Chinotti.

“Sugar may not be listed as ‘sugar’ on the nutrition panel either – and sometimes foods that are marketed as ‘healthy’ contain more sugar than is good for our oral health.”

How to spot hidden sugars in foods

Sugars appear under a number of names on nutrition panels, says Kate Gudorf, of Dietitians Australia.

“Sugar may be listed as dextrose, fructose, sucrose and glucose for example – an ingredient ending in ‘ose’ generally indicates a sugar,” she explains.

“Also be aware of products labelled ‘no added sugar’, like fruit juice. While there isn’t any added sugar, those products can still be loaded with natural sugar.”

Sugar may be called:

  • Agave nectar
  • Cane sugar
  • Caramel
  • Corn syrup
  • Date sugar
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Palm sugar
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Syrup

How to tackle hidden sugars and reduce risk of tooth decay

  • Choose foods with less than 10g of sugar per 100g.
  • The closer sugar is to the top of the ingredients list on a nutrition information panel, the more sugar is in the product.
  • Natural sugar is naturally present in foods like fruit, vegetables and dairy products like milk and yoghurt. Added sugar is sugar that is added to foods at the time it is being manufactures or consumed. WHO’s recommendation is to reduce added sugars in our diet.
  • Avoid snacking and grazing to reduce “sugar hits” affecting your teeth during the day.
  • After eating, chewing sugar-free gum can stimulate saliva production, which can cleanse the mouth and buffer acids that form in the mouth. About 20 minutes of chewing is ideal.
  • Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, floss once a day and see your dentist regularly.

More dental health tips

Written by Sarah Marinos.