Unsweetened: WHO Introduces New Sugar Guidelines

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sillyjilly/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sillyjilly/

The World Health Organization wants your life to be half as sweet as it is now. On Wednesday, the organization announced it planned to revise its current intake guidelines for free sugars from less than 10 percent of daily caloric intake to less than 5 percent. Free sugars are sugars that have been added to foods and beverages through monosaccharides and disaccharides, as well as those found in nature, like honey.

In a standard 2,000-calorie daily diet, following the new guidelines would mean that 100 calories could come from sugar. There are four calories per gram of sugar, limiting a person’s sugar intake to approximately 25 grams. In a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, there are 39 grams of sugar. One serving of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal has 18 grams of sugar.

In the draft guideline, WHO describes why a decrease is needed. Free sugars, especially when consumed with sugar-sweetened beverages, are believed to be contributing to an unhealthy diet, weight gain, an increase in noncommunicable diseases (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, etc.), and cause fewer healthy foods to be consumed. Dental health problems were singled out because they are the most common noncommunicable diseases in the world. Treating dental ailments is costly, accounting for 5 to 10 percent of an industrialized country’s health budget. In a lower-income country, the cost children’s dental health needs can eclipse the entire health budget.

By setting new standards, WHO hopes to control sugar’s detrimental side effects, namely weight gain and dental concerns. When asked at the press conference announcing the reduction, Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development Francesco Branca explained how WHO settled on the 5 percent figure.

“We have analyzed the literature with regard to the main question, which was: Is a 10 percent limit good enough to improve health? And that answer was addressed by looking particularly at data on dental caries, which have indicated that the consumption of free sugars higher than 10 percent is conducive to a higher rate of dental caries,” Branca said. For a “full absence of full decay,” 5 percent was found to be the appropriate limit.

“Dental carries,” or tooth decay, and sugar were the subject of an investigation published in the Journal of Dental Research. The study looked at the relationship between levels of sugar in a person’s diet and was undertaken to inform WHO guidelines. It is cited in the proposed changes and calls for less than 5 percent of a person’s daily calories to come from sugar for dental health purposes. 

Branca also discussed the scientific literature that has shown weight loss when people remove added sugars from their diets. Additionally, a study from the British Medical Journal was included with the guidelines. It concluded that the “intake of free sugars or sugar sweetened beverages is a determinant of body weight.”

While sugar reduction is part of a healthier lifestyle, there are practical implications, as well. Branca acknowledged that it will be up to a country’s policymakers to determine which action, if any, they will take given the new recommendation. “A recommendation like this one can be used to develop food-based dietary guidelines, can be used to develop nutrient profiling of food, can also be used as a basis to have policies to provide healthier food in public institutions, to restrict marketing of several products,” he said.

At a day-to-day level, adhering to a 5 percent limit could introduce dramatically different eating habits. Branca said attitudes among consumers and food manufacturers would need to change for this to be successful. Products would need to be made with fewer added sugars, but people also need to choose to reduce the sugar in their diets, particularly in the U.S. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations referenced during the press conference, of the countries evaluated, the U.S. had the highest dietary intake of energy from sugars.

A data brief by the National Center for Health Statistics reports that between 2005 and 2010, men consumed on average 335 calories of added sugars daily; 239 calories of an average woman’s daily diet came from added sugars. In Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, it is recommended that only 5 to 15 percent of a person’s calories should come from solid fats and added sugars.

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