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WHO joins U.S. nutrition experts in calling for curb on sugar intake

WHO advises people to keep their “free” sugar intake to less than 10 percent of their total daily energy intake.

The average American consumes 22 to 30 teaspoons of sugar daily — about half of which comes from sodas, fruit juices and other sugary drinks.
REUTERS/Sam Hodgson

One of the boldest changes to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommended last month by the guidelines’ nutrition advisory panel was that Americans should curtail their sugar consumption to no more than 10 percent of their daily calories.

That’s about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day for adults.

The average American consumes 22 to 30 teaspoons of sugar daily — about half of which comes from sodas, fruit juices and other sugary drinks. (A typical can of soda contains 10 teaspoons of sugar.) 

On Wednesday, that dietary recommendation went global. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a new sugar guideline of its own, which also advises people to keep their “free” sugar intake to less than 10 percent of their total daily energy intake.

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A 5 percent cap on this type of sugar (no more than 6 teaspoons daily) would probably be even better for people’s health, the WHO experts said. But that lower number is only a “conditional” recommendation, they stressed, because few studies have been conducted to date with populations consuming such a low amount of sugar.

The American Heart Association (AHA) doesn’t see it as conditional, however. It already recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar a day for men. 

“Free” sugars refer to the glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar) that are added to foods and drinks either by processed-food companies or by the home cook. It also includes sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit-juice concentrates.

It does not include sugars found naturally in whole fresh fruit, vegetables and milk.

The global problem of obesity

The WHO and U.S. nutrition experts cite the same key reason for their new sugar recommendations: the growing (and global) problem of obesity and related chronic health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, in a released statement. “Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases.”

But the extra (and unnecessary) calories that come from sugary foods — and that are associated with obesity — aren’t the only concern of health officials. As the WHO guideline points out, sugary foods tend to nudge more healthful and nutritious foods out of people’s daily diet. That factor has health consequences, too.

Tips for cutting back on sugar

The new WHO sugar guideline stresses that individual countries will need to adopt new policies to help their populations cut back on sugar. In addition to developing more healthful food-based dietary guidelines, these policy options include “food and nutrition labeling, consumer education, regulation of marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in free sugars, and fiscal policies targeting foods that are high in free sugars.”

In other words, simply telling people to eat less sugar will not, on its own, shift global eating habits, particularly given the strong financial incentive that processed food manufacturers have in keeping all of us on a high-sugar diet.

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But governments have been reluctant to take strong policy steps to curb the proliferation of sugary foods. So, in the meantime, individuals will need act on their own to get their personal sugar consumption down.

For most people, the quickest and easiest way to do this is to stop drinking sodas and fruit juices. But high amounts of sugar are hidden in many other processed foods — including some foods that people consider “healthful,” like yogurts, granola, and, yes, even whole-grain breads.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed a new rule that would require food labels to include a line for added sugars. But until that rule is implemented, consumers will need to hunt down hidden sugars themselves.

Look for words ending in the suffix ose, such as sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, glucose and galactose. Other terms that indicate added sugar include cane juice, dextrin, dextran, barley malt, beet sugar, syrup (such as corn, malt, maple, sorghum or carob), fruit juice, fruit-juice concentrate, turbinado and ethyl maltol. 

The “higher up” these words are in the food ingredient list, the more sugar in the product.

You’ll find additional tips for cutting back on sugar, both at the grocery store and in your kitchen, at the American Heart Association’s website.

And you can read WHO’s new sugar guideline, with details of the scientific evidence behind it, on the agency’s website.