Dump The Lumps: The World Health Organization Says Eat Less Sugar

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By Allison Aubrey, The Salt at NPR Food (3/4/15)

Sugar is sweet.

But too much of it can expand our waistlines, rot our teeth and increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

So the World Health Organization has new advice: Limit sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories consumed each day. And capping your sugar intake at just 5 percent of your daily calories "would provide additional health benefits," the guideline says.

Easy On The Sweet Tooth
The World Health Organization guidelines call for limiting sugars to 10 percent of your daily calories. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, this means no more than 200 calories should come from sugar. And WHO says reducing it to 5 percent — or just 100 calories in our scenario — may be even better. These cubes may look like a lot of sugar, but remember, lots of sugar is added to the processed foods we eat, including yogurts, condiments and snacks.

The World Health Organization recommends cutting sugar intake. Photo: Meredith Rizzo/NPR
The World Health Organization recommends cutting sugar intake. Photo: Meredith Rizzo/NPR

The WHO recommendation echoes the advice of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the panel that helps shape federal nutrition policy, which released its report a few weeks ago.


And just what would it take to comply with WHO's sweet-tooth limits? Well, consider the soda-drinking habits of Warren Buffett.

Just this week, Fortune quoted the Oracle of Omaha as saying: "If I eat 2,700 calories a day, a quarter of that is Coca-Cola. I drink at least five 12-ounce servings. I do it every day," says the major Coca-Cola shareholder.

So that's 700 calories of soda. And, yep, that's about 25 percent of Buffett's daily calories.

If Buffett decided he wanted to follow the WHO guidelines, he'd need to cut out three Cokes a day. And he'd need to skip other favorite sugary treats, such as the giant root beer floats served at Piccolo Pete's in Omaha — a dessert the billionaire has enthusiastically endorsed.

As for the rest of us, cutting back to less than 10 percent of calories from added sugar may mean rethinking our favorite snacks and beverages.

WHO says the types of sugars we want to cut back on include all of the sweeteners added to foods, such as sucrose (aka table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

The only sugars that we don't need to limit, according to WHO, are intrinsic sugars, which are naturally present in foods such as whole fresh fruits and vegetables.

The WHO recommendations to cut back on sugar are not sitting well with the global beverage industry. The International Council of Beverages Associations, which includes the American Beverage Association (whose members include The Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo), released the following statement:

"ICBA is disappointed that the WHO has confirmed the conditional recommendation suggesting a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5 percent of total energy intake, as it does not reflect scientific agreement on the totality of evidence."

The release went on to say that the industry "will continue to offer innovative ways to help consumers to achieve calorie balance though smaller portion sizes, no- and low-calorie beverages and transparent, fact-based nutrition information."

But public health advocates say the new WHO sugar guidelines are an important tool to help push back against the food and beverage industry — which has been resistant to limits on sugar.

"The guidelines are based on two meta-analyses of more than 120 scientific studies," Sarah Roache, a fellow at the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, said in a statement.

Roache, who was not involved in the study, says, "These guidelines are a crucial tool for developing and implementing policies to address weight-gain and obesity, such as food labeling laws, restrictions on advertising foods and beverages, and restrictions on sales of unhealthy products in regulated settings like schools and hospitals."

Copyright 2015 NPR.