The amount of sugar we (and our children) consume has been a hot topic for years, but this week we reached a crucial point in the debate following the publication of new recommendations by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) - the first wide ranging look at the relationship between sugar consumption and health outcomes in the UK since the 1990s.
The Government has accepted the recommendations, which means official advice on the best diet for health will change.
In this blog, PHE’s National Director for Health and Wellbeing, Kevin Fenton, and Chief Nutritionist Alison Tedstone answer questions about the new recommendations.
Can you first explain what SACN is and why their recommendations matter?
KF: “SACN is a committee of independent experts that advises the Government on diet and nutrition. The committee was asked by the Government to look at the links between carbohydrates, sugars, starch and fibre and how these affect our health. Their recommendations matter because the Government will use them to inform policy, which could in turn improve the health of many people in future.”
What have SACN said about sugar in their new report?
AT: “They advised the Government to halve the recommended intake of free sugars to no more than 5% of our daily energy intake. In more everyday terms, SACN have said that adults (and children over 11) should be consuming no more than 30 grams (7 cubes) of sugar each day.
Children from 7-10 should consume no more than 24g (6 cubes) and finally a 19g maximum for children from 4-6 (5 cubes).
‘Free sugars’ include any sugar that’s added to a product by manufacturers, cooks or consumers or the sugar naturally present in syrups, honey and fruit juices. It doesn’t include sugars in dairy products.”
What’s the point in having a daily level – why 5% of energy intake?
AT: “The SACN advice is based on robust evidence that has been tightly quality controlled and the 5% level is the target we all need to aim for to avoid damaging our health. We’ve published a full briefing to answer the question why 5%?”
Most people understand that it’s best to avoid too much sugary food and drink but can you elaborate on why people need to cut down?
KF: “It is now widely acknowledged that we have an obesity and diabetes crisis which is presenting us with two very serious problems.
On an individual level we’re damaging our health. Too much sugar means too many calories which leads to weight gain. This all adds up to increased risk of obesity and very serious illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
And our health system has to take the strain, with billions of pounds spent every year dealing with problems that were largely preventable. For instance treating type 2 diabetes costs the NHS £8.8 billion a year, almost 9% of its budget.”
Which groups of people need to cut down on sugar?
AT: “A recent national survey confirmed that we are all eating too much. Adults are eating more than double the new recommended amount and teenagers are consuming three times more sugar than the new recommendations. This has to change as on current trends one in three people will be obese by 2034. Already more than a fifth of 4-5 year olds are overweight or obese and this rises to a third of 10-11 year olds.
And of course we shouldn’t forget the impact on our teeth – it’s a shocking fact that 1 in 8 three year olds suffer from tooth decay.”
There’s a lot of diet and health advice out there – what can people do immediately to cut their sugar intake?
AT: “Sugary drinks are a major culprit and we’re particularly urging parents to cut them from their children’s daily diet. SACN have identified that their consumption leads to excess energy intake and weight gain and a can of fizzy drink can contain more than 30g of added sugar – that’s 7 cubes. If families buy sugary drinks then simply swapping them for water, low fat milk or diet drinks will make a big difference.
Our Change4Life campaign provides a range of easy to follow advice on how to make healthy diet choices.
Messages used by the Change4Life campaign and advice on the NHS Choices website will change to reflect new SACN recommendations and we are also refreshing the eatwell plate to help people better understand all current and new dietary advice."
Apart from simply making better food choices, what else can we do to reduce sugar consumption?
KF: “Nobody will be surprised to hear that there’s no single solution – individual action is just one piece of the jigsaw.
We’re finalising a review of the wider factors that influence our sugar intake. These include marketing and promotions, the amount of sugar added to the products we buy and fiscal measures.
How can local authorities help to reduce sugar consumption?
KF: “They can improve the food and drinks on offer in public buildings and spaces and identify opportunities to build this into contracts with local authority venues such as leisure centres, parks and swimming pools.
They can also implement government buying standards for food and catering services, which incorporate nutrient criteria and they can support local food businesses, such as takeaways, to promote healthier eating through training as well as incentives and reward schemes.
Across public and private sectors we’d like to see all large employers ensuring their canteens follow PHE’s healthier and more sustainable catering guidance and they should offer food and drink consistent with a healthy, balanced diet.”
Where can people get more information?
AT: “SACN’s report is available online along with a briefing on the science behind the 5% recommendation. Our Change 4 Life campaign has lots of tips and advice and you’ll be hearing much more from Change 4 Life on sugar in the autumn.