Abstract Background Those sugars in foods, which are potentially damaging to dental health, were classified by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) as non-milk extrinsic sugars (NMES). The NMES include sugars outside the cellular structure of a food, excluding the sugars naturally present in milk and milk products. The NMES should contribute no more than 10% of energy intake ( Department of Health, 1991). A number of studies have been published where NMES content of foods has been estimated. The purpose of this study was to carry out a comprehensive literature review using a methodical search strategy in order to identify the different methods that have been used for NMES estimation. Methods Databases searched were MEDLINE, EMBASE, Health-CD and Health Management Information Consortium (HMIC) (as sources of UK government and other official publications). Results In total, 32 publications were found in which NMES values were reported and five different methods to estimate NMES were identified. No published method provided sufficient information to clearly differentiate between methods and inadequate detail was given to support replication of any of the methods. Of these five methods, The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) have published three different descriptions of methods of NMES estimation used in UK national dietary surveys published since 1989. However, one method has been described consistently in the National Diet and Nutrition surveys published since 1994. Conclusions A single, uniform approach to the estimation of NMES for application in nutritional surveys is essential for cross-comparison between surveys. The results show that there is a clear need for one standardized approach for the estimation of NMES in foods.