Earlier this week I suggested that the ‘extremely worrying’ news that children are eating twice as much sugar as the government recommends might have something to do with the government halving the recommendation. The change was made in 2015 based on advice given by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) as part of its evidence review of carbohydrates. It recommended that people consume no more than five per cent of their calories from ‘free sugars’ (which includes sugar in honey and fruit juice). This was a significant change to the previous advice to consume no more than ten per cent of calories from ‘non-milk extrinsic sugars’ (which excludes honey and fruit juice).
In calorie terms, this implies daily limits of around 100 calories, down from the previous 200 calories. In layman’s terms, this means five or six sugar cubes for children under the age of 11 and seven sugar cubes for adults. The new guidelines are the lowest in the world and have been a boon for Action on Sugar who have issued press release after press release complaining that various everyday food products contain more than a day’s sugar.
The implication is that there is something inherently unsafe about consuming more than 30 grams of sugar in a day, but what? What harm will come to a 10 year old who consumes the recommended 2,000 calories a day but gets 200 of those from sugar rather than the recommended 100? Given that Britain’s food supply is being taxed, regulated and reformulated on the pretext of meeting this target, this is a question that should be asked more often. The answer, incredibly, is ‘nothing’.
When the new advice was first issued, Public Health England put out a document called ‘Why 5%?’ to explain the rationale. It starts from the (false) premise that it would be beneficial for everybody to consume 100 fewer calories per day. If this were to be achieved by reducing sugar consumption, it would mean consuming 25 fewer grams of sugar per day. And since the existing guidelines implied an upper limit of 60 grams per day, this would have to be roughly halved. Voila! People should eat no more than 30 grams of sugar per day and children should eat even less.
Neither Public Health England nor SACN claim that there is anything unique or special about calories in sugar when it comes to weight gain or obesity. So long as people stay within the calorie limits, the amount of sugar consumed has no effect on body weight or diabetes risk, although it could increase the risk of tooth decay if it is consumed frequently by people who neglect to brush their teeth.
Contrary to popular belief, SACN’s decision to lower the guidelines was not based on the inherent dangers of sugar but on the observation that people who eat a lot of sugar tend to consume more calories overall. This is hardly surprising given that sugar is largely consumed in snacks, sweets, biscuits, soft drinks and cakes – all products that are consumed in addition to main meals. It is no more than common sense to advise people to cut down on snacks and fizzy drinks if they want to lose weight, but this applies as much to non-sugary snacks such as peanuts and crisps as it does to chocolate and sweets.
In effect, SACN were nudging us towards cutting down on sugary treats as one way of reducing overall calorie consumption. The ‘Why 5%?’ document admits that ‘there is nothing specific about the effect of sugars when energy intake is held constant’ but says that ‘lowering free sugars intakes provides one approach to lowering the average total dietary energy intake of the population’ (my italics). They could just as easily have told us to reduce our bread consumption by one slice a day or to eat less cheese.
The change to the sugar guidelines was aimed at people who exceed the calorie guidelines. For those who stay within the calorie limits, it makes no difference whether you consume 5 per cent, 10 per cent or even 15 per cent of those calories from sugar. The message that the authors of the SACN report wanted to send was ‘eat fewer calories’, but since that was beyond their remit they used the only tools available to them and lowered the recommended percentage of calories that should come from sugar.
Whether by accident or design, this announcement fed into the growing narrative that sugar is toxic, addictive and uniquely associated with obesity, despite none of these theories being supported by the SACN report itself. The most charitable interpretation of the new targets is that they are a ‘noble lie’ designed to nudge people towards meeting the calorie guidelines. In practice, they have allowed Britain’s hysteria about sugar to reach new levels while giving people targets that are virtually impossible to meet.
SACN acknowledged that their new guidelines were half as low as those that had recently been issued by the US Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organisation (WHO). A few months before SACN released its report, the WHO decided against lowering its sugar guidelines to five per cent of calories because of a lack of evidence. Indeed, the only evidence it could find was a decline in tooth decay in Japan during the Second World War, which coincided with a decline in sugar consumption. There was no evidence whatsoever to support lowering the guidelines on the basis of obesity. The five per cent target survives as a mere ‘conditional recommendation’, which is what WHO issues when the evidence is weak but the advice is unlikely to do harm.
SACN admitted that the new guidelines would be ‘challenging to achieve’. This is an understatement. The 30 gram limit advised for adults is less than the amount of sugar provided under rationing in either of the World Wars. The Second World War civilian ration guaranteed eight ounces of refined sugar per week (32 grams per day) in addition to three ounces of sweets and two ounces of preserves. At the time, this meagre allocation was seen as an unwelcome but necessary part of fighting a war of survival and consumption rose sharply once rationing was abolished. By 1955, per capita consumption of refined sugar had risen to 17.6 ounces per week (71 grams per day) in addition to four ounces of preserves, six ounces of cakes and five ounces of biscuits.
There is no chance of sugar consumption falling below wartime levels in a free and affluent society, and so the crusade against sugar will go on without end. The figures above expose the idea that we eat more sugar today than our grandparents did as one of the more preposterous myths to have surfaced during the current moral panic. The decline in sugar consumption that has taken place since the 1970s is being masked by a lowering of official guidelines, just as the decline in alcohol consumption since the turn of the century has been masked by a lowering of official guidelines. In both cases, the guidelines have been altered with a view to changing behaviour and policy rather than treating consumers as reasonable adults who can handle evidence-based advice.