UK government committee backs halving free sugars limit to 5%

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

The final SACN report says free sugars should be limited to 5% of daily intake, while children and adults should o more to increase fibre and wholegrain intake.
The final SACN report says free sugars should be limited to 5% of daily intake, while children and adults should o more to increase fibre and wholegrain intake.

Related tags: Nutrition

The UK government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has ditched a 10% upper limit on sugar intake instead recommending that less than 5% of daily energy should come from free sugars.

After seven years of deliberation, the SACN committee issued its final report on carbohydrates today, including sugars in people’s diets. 

Unlike the draft report, issued in 2014​, the final SACN paper has done away with a recommendation that 10% of total energy intake is an acceptable upper limit for added sugar – instead backing a reduction to 5% of total energy intake. 

The report also advised that children and adults should increase the amount of fibre in their diet by eating more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods. 

New 5% target

In the 2014 draft, SACN suggested a level of 10% of dietary energy from free sugars (70g/day for men and 50g/day for women) was an upper target at an individual level, but also concluded that on a population level it was aiming for 5%.

The SACN committee is understood to have been concerned that this would send mixed messages to the public and has now removed mentions of 10% - much to the dismay of members of the food industry.

Indeed, industry bodies Sugar Nutrition UK, AB Sugar, and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) have questioned the new conclusions – which single out sugar-sweetened beverages as a leading cause of obesity and diabetes.

“The conclusion in the report that ‘free sugars’ should not exceed 5% of total energy intake doesn’t seem to represent the current balance of scientific evidence,”​ said Dr Alison Boyd, Director, Sugar Nutrition UK. “It is notable that the report itself finds there is ‘insufficient evidence’ to draw a conclusion about sugar’s relationship to weight gain or body mass,”​ she added. 

“We are concerned that the basis for the calculation of this 5% value is misrepresentative of the data and it is unclear how replacing energy from ‘free sugars’ with that from other carbohydrates would achieve the desired energy deficit,”​ she added.

However, Professor Brian Ratcliffe, from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, said the findings of the report “reflect the accumulating evidence that added sugars contribute to excessive energy intakes leading to weight gain and obesity, and that higher intakes of dietary fibre are associated with better health and life expectancy.”

“This is a welcome contribution to clarifying recommendations for public health nutrition,”​ said Ratcliffe.

Meanwhile, Ian Wright, director general of the FDF warned that demonising any one ingredient in the obesity debate isn’t helpful: “The report confirms what we already know - that sugars are a contributing factor to tooth decay and if consumed in excess can lead to weight gain,”​ he said.

Action needed 

Health experts and campaigners welcomed the recommendations, adding that it is time for stronger leadership in the fight against obesity and diabetes, and warning that industry must do more to cut out ‘unnecessary’ sugars in foods and drinks.

Jennifer Rosborough, Registered Nutritionist, said success in following the recommendations will require a range of approaches; from education and behaviour change initiatives, to food industry product reformulation and government regulatory measures.

“The food and drink industry does not want to cause any more harm to its customers; they are waiting to be told what to do and it is essential that they are given a level-playing field so that they are all working towards the same goal,”​ said Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of Action on Sugar. “This policy must therefore be enforced by a strong independent agency.” 

Indeed, Action on Sugar nutritionist Kawther Hasham warned that soft drinks companiesmust reformulate their sugary drinks immediately if they want to be consumed as an occasional ‘treat’ within a healthy diet.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said retailers have already removed thousands of tonnes of sugar and billions of calories from their food and drink products – but added that ‘there is further to go’.

“The focus needs to be on those initiatives that will make a difference and, crucially, getting the entire food industry to adopt retailers’ positive approach,”​ said a BRC statement.

The FDF’s Wright added that while recent activity has been ‘squarely focussed’ on reducing the calories people get from sugars, “we would also like to see SACN’s fibre recommendations taken seriously.”

Indeed, he suggested that government, industry and the health community need to collaborate on a strategy to increase fibre intakes: “UK food and drink businesses remain committed to helping our customers achieve better, more balanced diets. We will continue to engage with Government and other partners and to be part of the solution to tackling obesity,”​ he said.

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