What the world can do to curb sugar consumption

18 May 2015 | Policy

Bryony SinclairBryony Sinclair is Policy & Public Affairs Manager at World Cancer Research Fund International.

We all consume sugar in some shape or form, but the problem is that globally we’re consuming far too much of it.

Sickly sweet

Sugar consumption is contributing to a global obesity epidemic - among both adults and children - which in turn has contributed to a rise in non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. Our analysis of global research shows that being overweight or obese is linked to ten cancers. So more action is needed to promote healthier diets around the world, including reducing sugar consumption.

Sugar consumption is on the rise

At the millennium, 130 million tonnes of sugar was consumed globally. This year though, the figure is expected to reach a staggering 182 million tonnes. Many countries around the world are consuming sugar at levels that exceed the World Health Organization’s sugar Guideline, which recommends that free sugars should be less than 10% of total daily energy intake for both children and adults – and recommends keeping sugar consumption to below 5% of total calories per day for additional health benefits.

To help governments meet the World Health Organization’s sugar Guideline, we have produced a sugar policy brief that we’re launching to coincide with the World Health Assembly which starts today. Called Curbing Global Sugar Consumption: Effective Food Policy Actions to Help Promote Healthy Diets & Tackle Obesity, the brief provides policymakers with an outline of the policies that are available, concrete examples of policies that have worked in countries around the world, and includes input from experts who were involved in the development and implementation of the policies, so that they can be implemented or tailored to different contexts.

The sugar brief also illustrates what 10% or 5% of total calories in a day looks like when it comes to sugar consumption. For an average person consuming 2,000 calories per day, 10% of total calories is about 12.5 teaspoons of sugar and 5% is about 6 teaspoons.

Most of the sugar consumed is found in the foods & drinks we buy

Most free sugars we consume are added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer or retailer, but not just to the usual suspects like confectionery and sugary drinks; added sugars are also found in unlikely places such as sauces, cereals bars, low-fat yoghurts and ready meals.

Why we are eating so much sugar

Our sugar policy brief highlights that there are “4 A’s that influence sugar consumption” - these are:

  • availability
  • affordability
  • acceptability
  • awareness

How much sugar we eat is influenced by how available and affordable sugar and sugary products are, how appetising the alternatives are and also how aware we are of how much sugar is in the products we eat.

Evidence-informed policies to help reduce sugar consumption

Feasible policy actions exist that effectively reduce the availability and affordability of sugar and sugary products, increase the acceptability of alternatives to these products and increase awareness about the amount of sugar contained in products. Our policy brief, provides examples of actions from seven countries that have had these effects.

A comprehensive approach needed to promote healthier diets

It’s important to remember that we are striving for an overall healthier diet, not just one with less sugar. So policies aimed at reducing sugar consumption need to be planned and implemented in the context of broader dietary improvements. Looking at sugar in isolation can lead to unintended negative effects, for example if reducing the sugar content of a product is compensated for by an increase in the amount of fat. A healthy diet, one high in plant foods and low in animal products, fat, sugars and salt, reduces the risk of non-communicable diseases, including cancer.

Finally, when it comes to effectively promoting healthier diets and reducing sugar consumption, a comprehensive approach is needed. Singular approaches are not going to have the desired impact. Action is needed across all ten policy areas identified in our NOURISHING framework that encompass the food environment, food system and behaviour change communication.

I hope that our sugar brief helps policymakers and governments to take effective action, so that we can see a positive impact on diets among populations right across the world.  

For the latest news from World Cancer Research Fund International, please follow us at twitter.com/wcrfint or view our 1 minute video outlining our 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

Bryony Sinclair | 18 May 2015