Cutting sugar intake

26th June 2014

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN)  has today published its draft report on Carbohydrates and Health. Public Health England (PHE) have also published a response, ‘Sugar Reduction: Responding to the Challenge.’ Ian Johnson, from the Institute of Food Research, is a member of the SACN working group on Carbohydrates and Health.

The Institute of Food Research welcomes this report, as it provides a thorough, systematic review of the current state of knowledge in relation to the biological effects of different carbohydrates on health, and provides objective and independent evidence on which we can base decisions on how we tackle the problems of obesity and other diet-related conditions.

The draft SACN report recommends free sugars (those added to food or in fruit juices) shouldbe less than 5% of daily dietary energy intake, which based on average diets is  which is 25g for women (5-6 teaspoons) and 35g (7-8 teaspoons) for men

The draft SACN report recommends free sugars (those added to food or in fruit juices) shouldbe less than 5% of daily dietary energy intake, which based on average diets is which is 25g for women (5-6 teaspoons) and 35g (7-8 teaspoons) for men

The report recommends reducing the consumption of free sugar in the diet to 5% of dietary energy, and an increase in the amount of fibre in the diet. This will help to maintain good health, reduce our high levels of obesity, and lower the risks of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. As a nation we are already failing to meet the present guidelines, which is a measure of the challenge we all face.

The food industry has an obvious role to play, by continuing its efforts to minimise the levels of sugars and fats in manufactured foods. Scientific research can help accelerate this, especially where genuine barriers to sugar and fat reduction exist, such as detrimental effects on shelf-life, or where the overall structure or taste of the final product becomes unacceptable to the consumer. The development of healthier products also needs to be done in conjunction with efforts to educate consumers on broader aspects of a balanced diet, and to address other lifestyle factors, such as exercise.

The report also recommends that sugar-sweetened drinks should be consumed in minimal amounts. The recently published National Diet and Nutrition Survey highlighted these, with 11-18 year olds obtaining 30% of their recommended daily sugar intake from soft drinks.  Behavioural change from consumers could most effectively reduce this, replacing sugary drinks with water or other low-calorie alternatives, but there is a role for the manufacturers to play in making better, more attractive alternatives.

The evidence presented in the report linking excess sugar to adverse effects on health should also spur the food industry to redouble its efforts to reduce added sugar in its products. But it must be recognised that there are genuine barriers to doing this quickly.

Removal of sugar should be approached with caution and with exact knowledge of the preservative role sugar plays. In some products sugar acts as an important preservative. Sugar ties up the amount of water available within the product in which bacteria can grow. If the water available is increased by removing some of the sugar it is possible organisms may be able to start growing in the product, where previously growth was prevented. This can reduce shelf-life, increase wastage and potentially increase the risks of food poisoning. But these problems can and should be surmountable. For example, product reformulation and its effect on safety and product stability can be predicted using various software tools widely available including the Combined Database for Predictive Microbiology, ComBase. In addition ComBase@IFR also contains various predictive models which can aid product reformulation by predicting the effect of changes on the ability of organisms to grow within certain environmental conditions. However all predictions must be validated by practical microbiological testing.

Sugar and starch are sometimes used to improve the taste and texture of low fat foods. Whilst this may reduce the overall calorie content, it could also contribute to free sugar in the diet, in products that consumers could perceive as being ‘healthier.’ We need to understand how all of these factors contribute to the overall properties of foods to formulate  genuinely healthier foods, low in both sugar and fat, and science and technology have major roles to play in that.