By Jorge Rojas-Ruiz, Humanitas Global
Over the past 50 years the developing world has evidenced a decline of malnourishment; however, global obesity rates have doubled in the last thirty years – almost 10 percent of men and 14 percent of women throughout the world are now obese. Obesity is a major challenge for young populations – 43 million preschool children around the world were overweight or obese in 2010, accounting for the combined populations of Portugal, Switzerland, Bolivia and Guatemala. Moreover, roughly 81% of this number accounts for children in developing countries according to one global estimate, debunking previous beliefs that obesity is an ill of only the wealthy. There are many causes that lead to obesity, but an elevated consumption of sugar is a main concern for experts in public health.
Diabetes, cancers (colon, kidney, breast and thyroid among others), heart disease and strokes are all linked to obesity, the two last labeled as leading killers after accounting for 13 million deaths a year worldwide. World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 2.6 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese and is attempting to take measures that will help spur change. On March 5 – 31 of this year, WHO will be carrying out a public consultation on its draft guideline on the daily consumption of sugar. Once finalized, this guideline will provide countries with recommendations on limiting individual’s sugar intake in relation to caloric intake in order to reduce the risk of obesity and other health problems such as tooth decay.
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The new draft guideline proposes that sugars should be less than 10 percent of total energy intake per day, and goes beyond by suggesting that the consumption of sugar should be below five percent of the total amount of calories a person consumes in a day. An average person following WHO’s recommendation to cut sugar intake to five percent of daily calories would have to consume less sugar than what is present in a single can of soda. Dr. Francesco Branca, WHO’s director of nutrition for health and development stated that “even at a 10 percent limit, a can of sugar-sweetened drink approaches the amount that is acceptable for an adult”.
Even if consumers are 100 percent committed to consuming the recommended amount of sugar, compliance will be challenging due to the addition of sugar in commonly consumed foods. For example, even “healthy” cereal choices, such as granola, may sometimes contain the same amount of sugar as sweetened cereals. Additionally, one tablespoon of ketchup contains one teaspoon of sugar, roughly 1/7th the amount of sugar present in a can of soda. Hidden sugars are a serious issue to consider, and consumers will need further guidance in order to make informed and conscious decisions about their consumption of sugar for their health.
WHO’s draft guidelines are a recommendation to improve one’s health, but, if formalized, how can consumers transition from their current levels of sugar consumption to recommended levels? What are the pathways to build domestic suport and policies that reflect potential global guidelines? How can food companies join in given sugar's central role as an ingredient in so many prepared and packaged foods? And, most importantly, how do we continue to reinforce that sugar consumption is only one small part of the equation? Afterall, changing lifestyle patterns, dietary diversity, physical fitness, environmental factors among others, all form part of our global health picture.
Comprehensive strategies that empower consumers and provide tools that enable healthy lifestyles are necessary. We must actively integrate those who are on the delivery side of food, health and information to make guidelines real and actionable.
WHO’s draft recommendations on sugar is an important step and fosters an evidence-based dialogue that is needed on this topic. Sharing knowledge, issuing policy reforms, enabling access to nutritious food and empowering consumers are also necessary as we evaluate recommendations and translate them for real-world application.
For more information on the WHO proposed draft guidelines, please visit the online portal. The guidelines are open for public comment through March 31, 2014.