A sweet opportunity for stronger sugar policies

29 October 2014 | Policy

Dr. Anne Marie ThowDr Anne Marie Thow is a lecturer in health policy at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the use of economic policy to improve the food environment and prevent chronic disease. Her research projects include collaborations with the International Food Policy Research Institute and World Trade Organization.

The 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) draft guidelines on sugar intake reiterate their 2003 recommendation to limit sugar intake to 10% of dietary energy intake per day. The guidelines present stronger evidence of the health problem associated with higher sugar consumption, as well as its social and economic costs. They also indicate the benefits associated with a reduction of sugar intake to 5% of dietary energy intake.

The new draft guidelines are invaluable for policy making. They provide a benchmark against which to assess current sugar intake among populations and, therefore, show what policy needs to achieve. Comparing actual intakes against the recommended level reveals that the sugar intake of adults and children in many countries is too high. As Dr Corinna Hawkes and I argue in a commentary published in this month’s issue of the journal Public Health Nutrition, a stronger and more comprehensive approach to sugar policy for health is needed to support and equip consumers to reduce sugar consumption.

Policies to reduce sugar intake

In the commentary, we give examples of potential policies that could be used to reduce sugar intake organized according to World Cancer Research Fund International’s NOURISHING framework. The Framework incorporates the three critical policy domains where action needs to be taken, all of which are mutually reinforcing: policies to create supportive food environments – such as reducing the availability and accessibility of sugary foods in public settings, restricting advertising of sugary foods, and increasing the price of high sugar drinks; food system – policies such as reconsidering subsidies for sugar production; and policies to improve public awareness and skills, such as giving advice to parents in dental care settings, nutrition education and teaching food preparation skills in schools.

Although there are plenty of promising policies to enable individuals to meet the draft WHO guidelines on sugar intake, they all have implications for sugar producers, processors and refiners, and for producers of other sweeteners (e.g. high fructose corn syrup in the USA). How much sugar is consumed is an important determinant of profitability for these actors. The public health community must therefore engage with sugar as a political issue. We will need to engage strategically with the politics and policy making processes surrounding nutrition and sugar policy.

Urgent action needed

Action has been urgently needed to improve the world’s diet for many years, and the WHO’s sugar guidelines are an opportunity that the public health community should not miss to influence policies that promote healthier diets.

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Dr Anne Marie Thow | 29 October 2014