Health

WHO declares war on hidden sugars in fight against obesity

GENEVA: The World Health Organization on Wednesday urged the recommended daily intake of hidden sugar be halved, as it steps up the fight against obesity.

The UN health agency confirmed previous guidelines that sugars should make up less than 10 percent of a person’s total daily energy intake, but in a new twist said countries should strive for half that amount.

Setting the bar at five percent would mean people should consume no more than 25 grammes, or the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar a day — less than the 10 teaspoons in your average can of soda.

Health-hazardous “free” sugars, in the form of table sugar, fructose or glucose for instance, are added to foods and drinks by manufacturers, cooks and consumers themselves, and are naturally present in substances like honey and fruit juices.

The guidelines do not refer to sugars in fresh fruits, vegetables and milk, since there is no evidence they are harmful, WHO said.

Sugar-full ketchup

The UN agency pointed out that much of the so-called free sugars we consume today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweet, like ketchup, which contains a full teaspoon of sugar in each tablespoon.

“In reality, we find (these sugars) in the majority of products,” said Francesco Branca, who heads the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.

He pointed to a survey of US supermarkets indicating 80 percent of products contained added sugar.

An average-sized bowl of breakfast cereal contains four teaspoons of sugar, while sweetened yogurts contain one or two, he pointed out.

If you have a bowl of cereal in the morning, a can of soda during the day and a sweetened yogurt after dinner “you’re already at 15 teaspoons, so it is very easy to exceed” the guidelines, Branca told reporters.

WHO first raised the alert about added sugars in 1989, and has for more than a decade been recommending keeping sugar consumption below 10 percent of a person’s total daily energy intake.

On Wednesday it said that recommendation had been strengthened by increased scientific evidence, and urged countries to adopt it as policy, and if possible to go further and halve the recommended level.

The five-percent recommendation, aimed especially at preventing tooth decay, remains “conditional” since too few studies have been conducted in populations with such low sugar intake to allow a clear comparison.

While cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages can go a long way towards meeting the 10-percent level, Tom Sanders, a nutrition and dietetics professor at Kings College in London, said the five-percent limit was trickier.

“This target is much harder to meet because it would involve not eating cakes, biscuits, confectionary and all sugar-sweetened beverages including fruit juice,” he said.

Concretely, WHO would like to see better labelling to clearly show how much sugar is hidden in food and drink products to help consumers make healthier choices.

Countries should also restrict marketing of food and drinks with high sugar content to children, WHO said, also suggesting dialogue with food manufacturers could help reduce the level of sugar in processed foods.

‘Lifestyle diseases’ kill millions

The new, non-binding guidelines are part of WHO’s battle against obesity, tooth decay and a range of other non-communicable diseases, like diabetes, cardiovascular conditions and some cancers.

Such “lifestyle diseases”, caused by unhealthy habits like smoking, alcohol abuse and consuming too much sugar, fat and salt, kill 16 million people prematurely each year, according to WHO data.

Worldwide, the intake of free sugars has swelled 10 percent over the past decade, but consumption varies widely according to age and country.

The highest levels are seen in South America, where people on average consume 130 grammes of free sugars per day — more than double the 50 grammes allowed under WHO’s 10-percent recommendation.

Sub-Saharan Africans in contrast consume just 30 grammes per person per day.

In Europe meanwhile, sugar makes up seven to eight percent of the daily energy intake of adults in countries like Norway and Hungary, but 16-17 percent in countries like Spain and Britain, WHO said.

Worryingly, intake is much higher among children, with percentages ranging from 12 percent in countries like Denmark and Sweden to nearly 25 percent in Portugal, it said. (AFP)

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