PAHO/WHO urge less sugar consumption by adults and children

Adults and children should reduce their daily intake of ‘free sugars’ to less than 10% of total calories, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised. A further reduction to below 5%—or roughly 6 teaspoons per day in a typical 2,000-calorie diet—would provide additional health benefits, a press release issued by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) yesterday said.

According to the release, new guidelines from the WHO and published yesterday, were developed according to WHO’s rigorous process for guideline development and are based on the latest scientific evidence, with input from leading scientists from around the world and feedback through an open global consultative process. “Sugar is not an essential nutrient, and solid evidence shows that it can actually be harmful by contributing to overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” said Dr. Enrique Jacoby, advisor on healthy eating and active living at PAHO. “These guidelines will help countries develop policies and actions to reduce consumption of sugars to improve people’s health.”

‘Free sugars’, the release said, refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) that are added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. The guidelines do not refer to sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables or sugars naturally present in milk, because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars.

The guidelines are based on recent scientific evidence showing that adults who consume less sugars have lower body weight and that increasing the amount of sugars in the diet is associated with a weight increase. Research also shows that children with the highest intakes of sugar-sweetened drinks are more likely to be overweight or obese than children with low intake of sugar-sweetened drinks.

Other studies show that rates of dental caries (tooth decay) are higher when free sugars intake is more than 10% of total calories, compared with intake of below 10%. The recommendation of less than 5% free sugars intake is based on population-based ecological studies that showed a reduction in dental caries in countries where the availability of sugars dropped dramatically.

Much of the sugars consumed today are hidden in processed foods that consumers do not view as sweets. For example, 1 tablespoon of ketchup contains around 4 grammes (about 1 teaspoon) of free sugars. A single can of sugar-sweetened soda has up to 40 grammes (about 10 teaspoons) of free sugars, the release said.

PAHO/WHO member countries in 2014 adopted a regional Plan of Action for the Prevention of Obesity in Children and Adolescents, which calls for measures including restrictions on marketing of ultra-processed food and drink products to children, increasing the costs of these foods through taxation, increasing production and accessibility of wholesome fresh foods, and developing new guidelines for preschool and school meal programmes and for foods and beverages sold in schools

“These new WHO guidelines will help countries develop their own dietary guidelines as part of their implementation of the plan of action on child obesity,” said Jacoby. “The idea is to reduce consumption of over-processed foods and hidden sugars while also promoting local foods and cooking traditions.”

The release said the new guidelines are part of PAHO and WHO’s ongoing efforts to promote prevention of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. These efforts are framed by the WHO Global Action Plan for NCDs 2013-2020, which calls for halting the rise in diabetes and obesity and reducing the burden of premature deaths due to NCDs by 25% by 2025.

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