WHO cuts recommended sugar intake in half

The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched the first ever public consultation on the recommended levels of sugar intake. When finalized, the new WHO guidelines will provide countries with recommendations to reduce major public health problems – especially in high-risk developing regions.

The new sugar recommendations come in a dire time with the escalating rates of lifestyle-induced noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs – mainly cardiovascular diseases, cancers, obesity and chronic respiratory diseases – are now the world’s biggest killers.

The proposed guidelines appear to have a two-tiered recommendation that one’s sugar intake should not exceed 10% of total energy intake per day, with 5% the target. It works out to be about 50g a day for a normal weight adult, said the WHO.

“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,” describes Dr Francesco Branca, the director of WHO’s Department for Nutrition for Health and Development.

The vast majority of the sugar consumed is ‘hidden’ in processed and convenience food items. For example, sugar can be found in catsup, snack foods and sodas. The average serving of soda contains up to 35g of sugar with few healthy nutrients.

To understand the recommendation, one must know the difference between free and intrinsic sugars. WHO’s recommendation does not apply to intrinsic sugars that are found in fruits and vegetables. Eating fruits and vegetables lower rates of NCDs.

Free sugars “…are added to the food by the manufacturers, by the cook, by the consumer or are naturally present in honey, in fruit syrups, fruit concentrates,” Dr Branca adds.

Free sugars are commonly listed under other names such as sucrose, glucose, fructose and maltose on the food label. These are the chemical names of the different forms of sugar and they all apply to the new sugar recommendation.

The new sugar guidelines could prove instrumental in halting the sharp rise of type 2 diabetes and obesity as described in WHO’s Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases 2013-2020.

Obesity plays a significant role in the high rates of maternal and infant mortality rates. For both, reducing one’s sugar intake to the new recommended levels would prove essential in achieving the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

While deaths from noncommunicable diseases mainly occur in adulthood, exposure to risk factors usually begins in childhood and builds up throughout life – underpinning the importance of cross-cutting legislative and regulatory measures.

Overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and more likely to develop noncommunicable diseases at a younger age. Overweight and obesity, as well as their related diseases, are largely preventable and reversible.

The prevention of childhood obesity therefore needs to be a high priority. For all countries, the cost of inaction significantly outweighs the cost of taking action against noncommunicable diseases.

To take action, please visit: http://www.who.int/nutrition/sugars_public_consultation/en/

Public consultation is open until 31st March 2014. Interested people will have to submit a declaration of interest through the WHO website and submit their comments, which will be thoroughly analysed by the WHO Secretariat. (by Dr. Cory Couillard)

Dr Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and control. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

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