CP | By Helen Branswell, The Canadian PressPosted: 03/05/2014 10:02 am EST | Updated: 03/05/2014 1:59 pm EST
TORONTO – The World Health Organization is again urging people to lower the amount of sugar they eat, suggesting there are health benefits to restricting so-called free sugars to less than five per cent of one’s dietary intake.
For the average adult, that would be about six teaspoons (30 millilitres) of sugar a day — less than the sugar contained in a single can of sugar-sweetened soda. For children, it could be as low as three teaspoons (15 ml) of sugar a day, said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s department of nutrition for health and development.
In draft recommendations issued Wednesday, the Geneva-based global health agency said people should limit their intake of sugar to no more than 10 per cent of their daily calorie intake, but if they could get to five per cent, that would be better.
“The five per cent would probably be the ideal one and the 10 per cent is the more realistic one,” Branca said in a teleconference for journalists.
Both would likely be a stretch for many Canadians.
Statistics Canada does not have data that teases out what proportion of Canadians’ calorie intake comes from free sugars versus intrinsic sugars.
Free sugars are sugars added to foods by manufacturers, cooks or the people eating the food — brown sugar on oatmeal, for example — as well as natural sugars found in fruit juices, honey, syrups and molasses. Intrinsic sugars are the sugars in whole foods like fruit; intrinsic sugars are not included in the WHO intake limit recommendations.
The sugar in an orange is intrinsic. The sugar in orange juice — freshly squeezed or from concentrate — is free sugar.
The most recent Canadian data, from the 2004 Canadian Consumer Health Survey, shows that on average Canadians consumed 110 grams of sugar a day that year — the equivalent of 26 teaspoons (130 ml) of sugar. Sugar calories made up 21.4 per cent of the average Canadian’s total calorie intake.
Didier Garriguet, a senior analyst with Statistics Canada, said because of the way the data were collected, there is no way to break out the free sugar intake from the total sugar intake. Garriguet said a nutritional survey planned for 2015 should provide a clearer picture of the breakdown of sugars in Canadians’ diets.
The WHO draft recommendations differ from earlier iterations in setting the target of less than five per cent. The less than 10 per cent recommendation has been WHO policy since the late 1980s.
The draft recommendations will be open for public comment for the rest of March, after which the WHO and scientific advisers will finalize the guidance.
The recommendations are likely to be contentious. And nutrition experts who have been waiting for the recommendations expect pushback from the food industry, which would need to dramatically reformulate products if consumers were to be able to meet the targets and still eat prepared and packaged foods.
In 2004 when the WHO tried to include the 10 per cent sugar limit recommendation in its Global Strategy for Diet, Physical Activity and Health, the U.S. Congress — under pressure from the sugar industry lobby — threatened to withdraw U.S. funding for the agency. The direct reference to the 10 per cent figure was removed from the final report.
Branca said he doesn’t anticipate the same degree of opposition this time.
But in an interview before the release of the draft guidance, Canadian obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff predicted the recommendations would lead to heated debate.
“There’s going to be fierce lobbying. Fierce, fierce, fierce.”
Sugars are added to many foods — things like breakfast cereals, sauces, baked goods and condiments. A tablespoon of ketchup, for instance, contains about one teaspoon (five ml) of sugar.
In addition to being ubiquitous, added sugars have many names — molasses, sucrose, fructose, anhydrous dextrose, malt syrup and honey, to name just some. So spotting exactly how much added sugar there is in prepared foods is no easy thing.
The recommendations look at limiting sugar intake in relation to lowering the risk of obesity and tooth decay, two conditions scientific studies suggest are linked to excess sugar consumption.
The report said consideration was also given to looking at the evidence related to sugar intake and two other conditions — heart disease and diabetes. But in the end the focus remained on obesity and tooth decay.
In Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundation began a consultation process this week to determine if it should recommend that Canadians restrict the portion of their daily calories that come from sugar.
It is considering following the lead of the American Heart Association, which suggests that added sugars make up no more than half of one’s daily discretionary caloric allowance, which it says would be no more than 100 calories or six teaspoons (30 ml) a day for most American women and 150 calories a day or about nine teaspoons (45 ml) of sugar for men.