WHO declares war on hidden sugars in fight against obesity

The World Health Organisation on Wednesday urged a dramatic drop in the consumption of sugar, "hidden" in everything from sodas and ketchup to honey, as it steps up the fight against obesity. -- PHOTO: AFP
The World Health Organisation on Wednesday urged a dramatic drop in the consumption of sugar, "hidden" in everything from sodas and ketchup to honey, as it steps up the fight against obesity. -- PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday urged the recommended daily intake of hidden sugar be halved, as it steps up the fight against obesity.

The UN health agency had previously issued guidelines that sugars should make up less than 10 per cent of a person’s total daily energy intake, but in a new twist urged countries to strive for half that amount.

Setting the bar at 5 per cent would mean people should consume no more than 25g, 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.

WHO has for more than a decade recommended keeping sugar consumption below 10 per cent of a person’s total daily energy intake – a target it considers clearly supported by scientific evidence which countries should adopt as policy.

But the UN health agency decided to halve the previous recommended level following a year of discussions among WHO member states.

The 5 per cent recommendation however remains “conditional", WHO said, since too few studies have been carried out in populations with such low sugar intake to allow a clear comparison.

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 urging “dialogue with food manufacturers to reduce free sugars 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 varies widely according to age and country.

In Europe for instance, sugar makes up 7 to 8 per cent of the daily energy intake of adults in countries like Norway and Hungary, but 16-17 per cent in countries like Spain and Britain, WHO said.

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

Such high sugar consumption can have devastating consequences, with research showing it can increase the chances of obesity, which in turn heightens the risk of a range of serious diseases later in life like diabetes and cancer.

Studies have also shown clear links between high sugar consumption and tooth decay.

“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10 per cent of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” Francesco Branca, who heads 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 noncommunicable diseases,” he added.