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New sugar recommendations are bittersweet

photo courtesy david pacey via Flickr.

What do sweet and sour chicken, fruit yogurt, and pasta sauces have in common? It may surprise you, but all of these pre-packaged foods typically contain more than your recommended daily amount of sugar.

According to new draft guidelines published by the World Health Organization (WHO), people should try and limit the amount of sugar they consume to 5 percent of their daily calorie intake. But if 5 percent is too difficult, the WHO has determined that to avoid weight gain and minimize risk of diseases like diabetes, absolutely no more than 10 percent of a person’s daily calorie intake should be made up of sugar.

As you might expect, this is bad news for the United States, where a recent study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found 71 percent of adults currently consume more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars in foods and drinks.

Although that may seem right in line with the WHO draft guidelines, it isn’t.

The new WHO recommendations stress the suggested percentage of sugar a person should consume needs to apply to all sugar, not just added sugars. In the eyes of the new recommendations, sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices fall under the same category as sugar added to foods by manufacturers or consumers.

To better understand what these new recommendations mean, five percent of total calorie intake is equivalent to around 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons of sugar per day. That might seem like a liberal portion but consider this: just one sugary beverage like a soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar. One orange has about 23 grams of sugar!

Simone French, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota epidemiologist and obesity prevention expert said the guidelines look helpful, but challenging.

“My own opinion is that calories are the big problem in obesity prevention,” said French. “Sugary beverages with empty calories, large portion sizes and snacking on high calorie foods are all contributors to obesity and excess calorie intake.”

While sugar remains a problem because sugar adds calories, French says limiting calories is the bottom line. The concept of limiting sugar and therefore limiting calories might be easy for the public to grasp, however, the issue comes back to the pesky “hidden” sugar in foods.

“Recommendations on limited sugar may not be any more effective than simply advising to avoid sugar sweetened beverages or other sugary snacks,” warned French. “The public health challenge is how to make recommendations meaningful and actionable for the average person, who typically does not analyze his or her diet very deeply.”

Stay tuned to Health Talk for more on future health recommendations and for additional information on nutrition and healthy living.

  1. March 10, 2014 2:53 pm | Arianna Carughi Says:

    The W.H.O. Guidelines draft on sugars clearly specified that this applies to consumption of fee sugars: all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugar naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It does NOt include sugars in fruits and vegetables.

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