WHO recommends halving sugar intake advice

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

A standard can of sugar-sweetened soft drink would exceed the 5% limit on added sugars for most people
A standard can of sugar-sweetened soft drink would exceed the 5% limit on added sugars for most people

Related tags: Sucrose, British medical journal

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised halving sugar intake advice from 10% of total calories to 5% of total calories in a new dietary guideline proposal.

The WHO said it would retain its earlier 2002 recommendation that added sugars should account for no more than 10% of total calories, but added that reducing consumption to 5% “would have additional benefits”​.

In particular, it said papers published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ)​ and the Journal of Dental Research​ helped inform its proposal. The BMJ paper is a meta-analysis that links consumption of added sugars – but not other carbohydrates – with increased BMI (body mass index).  The other paper found that reducing added sugar consumption to less than 5% of total calories significantly reduced incidence of dental caries.

“There is increasing concern that consumption of free sugars, particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, may result in both reduced intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories and an increase in total caloric intake, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs),”​ the WHO said.

“Also of great concern is the role free sugars play in the development of dental diseases, particularly dental caries. Dental diseases are the most prevalent NCDs globally.”

Less than one can of sugar-sweetened soft drink

The suggested limits apply to all sugars that are added by food manufacturers or by consumers, including sucrose (table sugar), isoglucose (known as high fructose corn syrup in the United States), honey, syrups and fruit concentrates, among others.

For an average, normal weight adult, cutting added sugars to 5% of total daily calories is equivalent to about 25 g or about six teaspoons of sugar. A standard can of soft drink may contain up to 40 g or 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Debate needed…

Director of regulation, science and health at the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Barbara Gallani, stressed that the WHO guideline for total sugar intake remained at 10% of total calories.

“Where a conditional recommendation of a further reduction of sugars intake to below 5% of total energy is made, the report cautions that there is greater uncertainty about the quality of the underpinning science base,” ​she said. “WHO emphasise the need for ‘substantial debate and involvement of stakeholders before this recommendation can be adopted as policy’.”

Simon Capewell, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, UK, said: “A 5% target would reflect extensive scientific evidence linking excess sugars with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and common cancers (and rotten teeth in kids).

“Brits currently consume about three times too much sugar, 15% not 5%.”

The advice is open for consultation until March 31 and will be subject to a peer review process. The document – including instructions on how to comment – is available to download here​.

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