LONDON—Put down the doughnut. And while you’re at it, skip the breakfast cereal, fruit juice, beer and ketchup. New guidelines from the World Health Organization say the world is eating too much sugar and people should slash their sugar intake to just 5 to 10 percent of their overall calories.The guidelines finalize draft advice first released last year, which were published Wednesday after a year of consultations.
They are focused on the added sugars in processed food and those in honey, syrups and fruit juices. The advice does not apply to naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables and milk, since those come with essential nutrients.
“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of (added) sugars to less than 10 percent of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s nutrition department, said in a statement.
Experts have long railed about the dangers of sugar and studies suggest that people who eat large amounts of the sweet stuff are at higher risk of dying prematurely from heart problems, among other complications.
To meet the lower threshold set by the new guidelines, Americans, Europeans and others in the West would have to slash their average sugar intake by about two-thirds.
In the U.S., adults get about 11 to 15 percent of their calories from sugar; the figure for children is about 16 percent. In Europe, sugar intakes range from about 7 percent in Hungary and Norway to 17 percent in Britain to nearly 25 percent in Portugal.
Some experts said the 10 percent target was more realistic for Western countries than the lower target. They said the 5 percent of daily calories figure was aimed mostly at developing countries, where dental hygiene isn’t good enough to prevent cavities, which can lead to more serious health problems.
Last month, a U.S. government advisory committee advised that sugar be limited to 10 percent of daily calories, marking the first time the U.S. has recommended a limit on added sugars. The Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments will take those recommendations into account when writing the final guidelines, due by the end of this year.
WHO had previously suggested an upper limit for sugar consumption at around 10 percent, but issued the lower 5 percent guidance based on what it described as “very low quality evidence” suggesting further health benefits.
“To get down to 5 percent, you wouldn’t even be allowed to have orange juice,” said Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London who wasn’t part of the WHO guidelines.
He said it shouldn’t be that difficult for most Britons to get their sugar intake to 10 percent of their diet if they limit things like sugary drinks, cereals, beer, cookies and candy.
“I don’t want to say that you can’t even have jam on your toast, but it is possible to do this with some effort,” he said. “Cake is lovely, but it’s a treat.”
WHO said most people don’t realize how much sugar they’re eating because it’s often hidden in processed foods not considered sweet. The agency pointed out that one tablespoon of ketchup has about 4 grams (1 teaspoon) of sugar and a single can of soda has up to 40 grams (10 teaspoons).
“The trouble is, we really do like sugar in a lot of things,” said Kieran Clarke of the University of Oxford, who said the global taste for sugar bordered on an addiction. “Even if you are not just eating lollies and candy, you are probably eating a fair amount of sugar.”
Clarke noted that there’s added sugar even in pasta sauces and bran cereals. She said fruit juices and smoothies were common dietary offenders, because they have very concentrated amounts of sugar without the fiber benefits that come with eating the actual fruit.
Clarke welcomed the new WHO guidelines but said people should also consider getting more exercise to balance out their sweet tooths.
“If you do enough exercise, you can eat almost anything,” she said. “But it’s very hard to avoid large amounts of sugar unless all you’re eating is fruits and vegetables.”