How would you react if someone told you to cut your sugar intake by half? Would it be easy, or would it make a big difference to how you eat? No sugar in your coffee, no dessert after dinner. That muesli bar for mid-morning snack. Even the dry biscuits you eat for a snack at home. Sorry. Too much sugar in those too.
If you live in Australia that’s the message that’s just been delivered by the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose proposed new international sugar consumption guidelines are a wake-up call, say health experts.
The WHO guidelines suggest people limit sugar to 10 per cent of their daily calories and aim for five per cent. Ten per cent is equivalent to 50 grams or 12 teaspoons of sugar for the average adult and less for children.
However, the average Australian would need to halve consumption to achieve 10 per cent, which is similar to the WHO target set in 2002.
“The recommendations are pretty dramatic in terms of current intake in Australia,” said Professor Peter Clifton, head of nutritional interventions at Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes institute.
Many Australians might be surprised by how much sugar is in their diet. Sugar means the granular stuff we add to our cups of tea, but it also means honey, processed foods, carbohydrate-dense foods like bread and pasta, biscuits, supermarket yoghurts and breakfast cereals to name just a few.
The suggested limits apply to added sugars as well as those naturally present in syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. They do not apply to those in whole foods such as fruits or vegetables.
“It is a reasonable target to aim for, but it means no fizzy drinks and a minimal amount of sweets, biscuits and cakes,” said Prof Clifton.
“The five per cent is pretty close to unachievable.”
People could easily get up to 25 grams, or six teaspoons of sugar, eating cereals and other products commonly regarded as healthy, he said.
“There is so much sugar added to our diet that we don’t see and we hardly even taste,” said Rob Moodie, professor of public health at the University of Melbourne.
He welcomed the guidelines, which he said were based on a major review of studies on weight gain and dental health.
“I hope the federal government takes this seriously because we certainly have a problem with obesity, and sugar is a major contributor.
“Industry has been tucking away sugar in food for years. The classic example is low-fat yoghurt, where they replaced the fat with sugar.”
Other danger foods
Consumers should also be wary of foods such as bread, flavoured water, breakfast cereals and tomato sauce.
“Australia is in a pretty poor position in terms of responding to overweight and obesity and we are going to be paying for it for a long, long time,” Prof Moodie said.
The National Heart Foundation’s cardiovascular health director, Dr Rob Grenfell, suggested people limit treats to once a week.
“It is important to limit foods high in sugar and low in nutritional value – like soft drinks, confectionery, sweet biscuits and cakes.
“People need to look at the total make-up of a food to decide if it is a healthier choice.”