The recommended daily sugar intake for adults is 50 grams (12 teaspoons), as advised by the World Health Organization (WHO) to avoid obesity and tooth decay. In fact, limiting sugar intake to 25 grams, or 5% of daily energy consumption, can offer additional health benefits.
However, a glance at current sugar consumption patterns reveals that this would require a significant change in many people’s eating habits. Adults in Western Europe currently consume an average of 101 grams of sugar per day, while in South America, the figure rises to 130 grams.
In the United Kingdom and Spain, sugar constitutes about 16-17% of an adult’s daily energy intake. In Portugal, that number climbs to 25%. Thus, Portuguese adults would need to reduce their daily sugar intake by 80% to meet the WHO’s ultimate recommendation of 5% energy intake (25 grams) of sugar per day.
It is important to note that the WHO’s guidelines do not include the natural sugars present in fresh fruit and vegetables since there is no reported evidence of adverse effects from consuming these sugars.
However, a trip to the supermarket reveals that 50 grams of sugar, the WHO’s maximum recommended daily limit, doesn’t go very far. For instance, a typical breakfast consisting of two slices of white bread toast with chocolate spread, a 20cl glass of supermarket orange juice, and a hot chocolate already amounts to approximately 63 grams of sugar. This exceeds the recommended daily limit by 13 grams.
To be more conservative, consuming just the orange juice and a bowl of cereal for breakfast would still contribute 30 grams of sugar, leaving room for an additional 20 grams of sugar to stay within the WHO’s suggested 10% limit. However, this means sacrificing the “additional health benefits” associated with further sugar reduction.
While it may seem common sense to avoid sugary drinks and sweets for a low-sugar diet, it is worth noting that savoury, non-sweet foods like bread, pizza, and pasta also contain significant amounts of sugar, not to mention high levels of salt and fats.
Sugar & Food Labelling
Accurately determining the amount of sugar in our diet often depends on the quality of food labels. Some countries have stricter regulations than others when it comes to providing clear information to consumers.
In Europe, for example, there are specific EU regulations that companies must adhere to regarding sugar content and labelling. The term “low in sugar” can only be used on a food label if the product contains no more than 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams of solids or 2.5 grams of sugars per 100 ml of liquids.
On the other hand, the phrase “sugar-free” can still be used by companies even if it is not entirely accurate. According to EU regulation, a food can be labeled as “sugar-free” as long as it contains no more than 0.5 grams of sugars per 100 grams or 100 ml. This means that even products with 0.5 grams of sugar can be marketed as “sugar-free.”
Furthermore, if a food product claims to have no added sugars, it can only do so if it doesn’t contain any added mono or disaccharides or any other sweetening properties. If sugars are naturally present in the food, the label must indicate “CONTAINS NATURALLY OCCURRING SUGARS.”
In the United States, the issue of providing consumers with comprehensive information about sugar is also being addressed. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing changes to food labelling laws, with a particular focus on sugar.
Under the proposed regulations, companies would be required to declare “added sugars” on labels, in addition to the total sugars already mentioned. This sub-category of “added sugars” aims to provide consumers with a breakdown of sugar content, helping them understand how much sugar is naturally occurring and how much has been added to the product.
The FDA emphasizes that “added sugars” offer no additional nutritional value and are often referred to as “empty calories.” It is estimated that 16% of Americans’ total calorie intake comes from added sugars. Major sources of added sugars in the diet include soda, energy and sports drinks, grain-based desserts, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, dairy-based desserts, and candy.
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By Mark Davis, with Seamus Kearney