Bebeto Matthews / AP

WHO recommends cutting sugar intake

New UN agency recommends limiting added sugar consumption to 6 to 12 teaspoons a day – less than in a can of soda

The World Health Organization issued new guidelines this week calling for adults and children to limit consumption of added sugar to less than 10 percent of calories.

The United Nations’ public health arm recommended that people reduce their daily intake of sugars to 6 to 12 teaspoons per day. It added that curtailing sugar to less than 5 percent of calories consumed “would provide additional health benefits” and help prevent diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

The guidelines apply to foods and beverages with added sugars, not to those with naturally occurring sugars such as fruits, vegetables and milk.

“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free [added] sugars to less than 10 percent of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” Francesco Branca, the director of the WHO’s department of nutrition for health and development, said in a statement. “Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases.”

The recommendations, the WHO said, are based on evidence that adults who eat less sugar tend to weigh less and that children who drink the most sugar-sweetened beverages are more likely to be obese than children who drink less.

The WHO’s guidelines point out that processed foods and beverages that many people don’t think of as sweet have “hidden” added sugars. One tablespoon of ketchup, for example, has about a teaspoon of added sugar. A can of sugar-sweetened soda has about 10 teaspoons.

Experts have warned that eating excessive amounts of sugar increases the risk of obesity-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. 

To meet the WHO's new guidelines, Americans and Europeans would have cut their average sugar intake by about two-thirds. Sugar accounts for about 13 percent of calories in the typical U.S. diet. And in some European countries such as Spain and the United Kingdom, it’s responsible for 16 or 17 percent, the WHO said, with children often consuming even more.

Last month the U.S. government issued its own updated dietary guidelines, which, similar to the WHO’s, called for sugar intake of less than 10 percent of calories — the first time it has set a specific limit.

Industry groups have attacked the WHO’s guidelines for lacking robust evidence.

“The WHO’s ‘strong’ recommendations regarding sugars intake are not backed by ‘strong’ evidence,” the Sugar Association said in a statement. “This guideline misleads consumers by its use of poor-quality, weak and inconsistent data to link a level of sugars intake with reduced disease risk.”

However, Dr. Miriam Vos, a pediatrics professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, says the data are convincing that consuming high levels of added sugars are detrimental. She cited a 2012 study showing that children who regularly drank sugary beverages gained significantly more weight than those who didn’t.

“High levels of added sugars are harmful for health,” she said. “I think, as we start reading labels and wanting to have a healthy level of sugar consumption, we can bring down the amount of sugar in a lot of those products without losing the taste.”

Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian based in Washington, D.C., thinks the WHO’s 10 percent limit is “extreme,” though she believes in limiting sugar consumption. She says some foods and beverages with added sugar have the effect of making a certain healthy foods more palatable, such as chocolate milk, which in addition to added sugar has protein and calcium.

“Some advocates are looking to point blame at one single nutrient instead of at the whole diet,” she said. “You have to keep it in the context of the whole diet and not get hung up on sugar consumption and caloric consumption specifically.”

Vos says the evidence isn’t strong as to exactly how much sugar people should consume, but she suspects that 10 percent of calories might still be a little excessive. But, she says, there’s no need to go cold turkey.

“Everybody needs a little bit of sugar. It’s an enjoyable, pleasurable part of our lives,” she said. “This is another case where moderation is the key.”

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