Sugar intake should be slashed, say experts

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Current UK guidance says sugar should not make up more than 11% of our daily calories. The World Health Organisation has recently recommended 10% but urged countries to have an ambition to bring it down to 5%. A paper published today in the journal Public Health Nutrition says even that is too high. Sugar should not make up more than 3% of our energy intake.


We have a very long way to go. Children in England aged 4-10, according to the government’s latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey, are on 14.7% and older children, aged 11-18, are on 15.6%.


The two experts who are advocating 3% do it on the basis of the damage sugar is doing to our oral health. Dental decay is the most common disease in the world and as the junk-filled western diet is increasingly taken up in developing countries, where there is no fluoride in the water and little in the way of dentistry, it can cause misery and poor growth in children, whose sleeping as well as their eating is affected by the pain of bad teeth.


The evidence they produced went before publication to the WHO and may have been contributory to the aspirational 5% limit that it included in its latest guidance.


The authors are Aubrey Sheiham, Emeritus Professor of Dental Public Health, School of Life and Medical Sciences, University College London, and Philip James, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and World Obesity, also based in London. Both are very well known in public health circles and are currently advisers to the campaign Action on Sugar.


Sheiham is categoric about the implications:


The recommendation that sugar intake should be less than 10% of energy intake is no longer acceptable. Nutrition advice on sugar needs to be renewed now – added sugar intake should be at least less than 5% of energy intake.

Tooth decay is one of the most widespread health problems and it is thought around a third of UK children aged 12 have visible tooth decay. Added sugar has found its way into almost all food, and the use of sugar as a means to calm, entertain, or reward children has become normalised, whereas sugar should be an occasional treat. The government must stop acting in the best interests of the food and drink industry rather than individuals, and take action on sugar now.


His words have particular significance because the UK’s scientific advisory committee on nutrition (SACN) will publish the results of a long inquiry into carbohydrates, including sugar, in the diet next week.


Observers had suspected the inquiry, chaired by Professor Ian Macdonald of Nottingham University, might not take a particularly tough line on our sugar consumption. Macdonald is known to be unimpressed by the clamour that was fuelled by Robert Lustig’s book, Fat Chance; the bitter truth about sugar.


But Public Health England has been talking to interested parties both on the NGO side and in industry ahead of the SACN report about what can be done to reduce sugar consumption. When I asked if that meant SACN would come out with a recommendation to lower the guidance for the UK, I was told that we all eat too much of it anyway – as is obvious from the nutrition survey mentioned above. But it will be very interesting to see what they decide.

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