Why sugar and why so much? WHO investigates the food industry’s sweet tooth

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Most sugar in the European diet comes from sugary drinks and sweet foods such as confectionery chocolates, cakes, pastries and biscuits. © iStock
Most sugar in the European diet comes from sugary drinks and sweet foods such as confectionery chocolates, cakes, pastries and biscuits. © iStock
It's the ‘gold standard’ for sweetness, competitors use it and artificial sweeteners aren’t clean label. Unfortunately, there are more incentives to make sugary food in Europe than there are to avoid it, says a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, which offers six insights to create a healthier food system.

There are many reasons why manufacturers use sugar in processed foods - the perception that sugar is the ‘gold standard’ for sweetness, its functional properties in manufactured foods such as bulking, competition from other brands and retailers and the desire to give consumers a choice of foods.  

The problem is that disincentives to using sugar – growing public awareness of the negative health effects, government policies and a greater availability of non-nutritive sweeteners – are relatively few in number.

“The fact that sugar is a relatively cheap and abundant ingredient is not a direct incentive to use it, but means there is little incentive from the supply side not to use it,”​ the report says.

These are the findings presented in a report by the WHO in collaboration with the Centre for Food Policy at London’s City University.

Entitled Incentives and disincentives for reducing sugar in manufactured foods: an exploratory supply chain analysis​,​ the report looks at the sugar supply chain from farm to fork including its trade and processing, the manufacture of finished products and the retail space, and makes a number of recommendations to policy-makers and manufacturers to reduce Europe’s sweet tooth.

Dr João Breda, head of WHO Europe for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, said decisive action was needed to bring down the levels of sugar in manufactured foods in Europe.

“We already have encouraging examples of several countries in Europe that have demonstrated it is possible to challenge manufacturers to lower sugar content in foods through specific, time-bound targets for sugar reduction and interpretative front-of-pack labelling,” ​he said.

“Others have used legislation such as taxation on sugary beverages or limiting marketing to children of sugar-rich products.”

Sweet tooth, rotten diet

Sugar intake varies across countries but European adults are universally consuming more than the recommended 5% of energy from added sugar, equivalent to around 25 g of added sugars per day.

In Portugal, 95% of the population gets more than 10% of their total energy intake from added sugars.

In the United Kingdom and Denmark, for example, children as young as 4 years old consume more than 40 g of added sugar a day.

The biggest sources of sugars in the European diet are sugary drinks and sweet foods such as confectionery chocolates, cakes, pastries and biscuits.

The report praised several countries for implementing action to reduce sugar intake – targeted  reformulation in the Netherlands, the UK's sugar tax or France’s front-of-pack labelling – all of which were recommended in the WHO’s European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015–2020 to create a healthier food environment. However, more decisive action is needed, it says.

The pilot study offers six “interconnected insights​” that could help reduce sugar intake.

Insight 1​ Creating disincentives for manufacturers and retailers to add sugar to manufactured foods and drinks should be a strong focus of any sugar reduction strategy if the nutritional quality of the food supply is to improve.

Insight 2​ Using policy to set a level playing field for manufacturers and retailers that allows a “race to the top” by ensuring they are competing to achieve public health goals.

Insight 3​ Policies that reduce demand for sugar (for example, by helping children develop healthy taste preferences at an early age) will support the efforts of progressive manufacturers and retailers to grow demand for less sugary foods and drinks.

Insight 4​ Since sugar is inherent to the functional properties of many manufactured foods, measures will be needed that encourage substitution of manufactured foods and drinks with fresh, non-manufactured foods with no added sugars.

Insight 5​ Careful consideration of the potential “substitution” effect of different policies is also needed. If sugar is replaced in different foods, what is it replaced with?

Insight 6​ Over the longer term, sugar reduction strategies also need to consider how to engage with a fuller transformation of the “sugar system”. Reformulation of manufactured foods has its limitations, and there are many incentives that mean sugar is an attractive and affordable ingredient for manufacturers. Changing these incentives more fundamentally will require a rethink of the whole sugar production system towards quality, rather than quantity, of production in the longer term.

The report also draws attention to the huge variations in recipes. One branded soft drink not named in the report, for instance, has 23 g of sugars per can in the UK compared to 38 g in the Russia and 40 g in Turkey.

“[This] indicates that there is significant scope to reduce the amount of sugar added to manufactured foods.”

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