"We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of total energy intake reduces the risk of [being] overweight, obesity and tooth decay," Francesco Branca, director of the WHO's Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, said in an announcement about the new guidelines. "Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases."
Altering sugar intake will be harder for some countries than others. According to the WHO, added sugar intake ranges from about 7 to 8 percent of total energy consumption in Hungary and Norway to as much as 17 percent in Spain and Britain. In children, the figures go as high as nearly 25 percent in Portugal. There are also differences between rural and urban diets, the organization said. In far-flung rural communities in South Africa, the average intake is about 7.5 percent, while that number rises above 10 percent in the country's urban population.
The group's recommendations don't apply to sugars present in fresh fruits, vegetables and milk. Rather, public health experts have increasingly warned about added sugars found in processed foods, including those not typically classified as sweets. The WHO report notes, for example, that a tablespoon of ketchup includes about a teaspoon of sugar. A typical can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar.
The goals outlined Wednesday by the WHO are in line with what a federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended in a report last month, in which officials also suggested keeping added sugar consumption below 10 percent of total energy intake.
“Strong and consistent evidence shows that intake of added sugars from food and/or sugar sweetened beverages are associated with excess body weight in children and adults," that report found. "Strong evidence shows that higher consumption of added sugars, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, increases the risk of type 2 diabetes among adults and this relationship is not fully explained by body weight."
Likewise, the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than half of daily discretionary calories allowance. For most U.S. women, that means no more than about 100 calories of sugar a day; for men, about 150 sugar-based calories per day.
Last year, as the Food and Drug Administration began considering major changes to the Nutrition Labels facts found on most food items, the agency proposed for the first time a requirement that companies include the amount of added sugar in any given product. That proposal has met with stiff opposition from some food industry giants.
Likewise, the Sugar Association, which represents cane and beet sugar growers, wasn't so sweet on the WHO's suggestions.
"WHO’s 'strong' recommendations regarding sugars intake are not backed by “strong” evidence, a fact acknowledged by the organization itself, albeit in small print," the group wrote in a statement posted on its Web site. "The report footnotes reveal that the quality of evidence supporting the recommendations is “moderate,” “low,” and “very low” and indicate the evidence proves a modest level of confidence, at best, that the recommendations will have the desired effect."
The group argued that the WHO disregarded findings from other organizations about the lack of conclusive evidence to justify limits on added sugar intake and accused the WHO of issuing a report that "misleads consumers by its use of poor-quality, weak and inconsistent data to link a level of sugars intake with reduced disease risk."