Sugar – the WHO and the what

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Monday, 19 May 2014.
Tagged: healthy eating, sugar

Sugar – the WHO and the what
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Recently there has been a flurry of media attention on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Draft Sugars Guideline. So what is it? On 3 March 2014, WHO held a press conference where they announced they were opening up for discussion the Draft Sugars Guideline which would continue to propose that sugars should make up less than 10 per cent of total daily energy intake (measured in kilojoules or Calories). 

Dating back to 2002, WHO’s current guidelines of 10 per cent translate to around 50 grams added sugar (around 12 teaspoons) over a day, which is on the low side compared to what we currently take in. But this guideline has been well accepted and widely used. See my pdf free Download (470 KB) for how it compares.

However, now it further suggests that "a reduction to below 5 per cent of total energy intake per day would have additional benefits. Five per cent of total energy intake is equivalent to 25 grams (around 6 teaspoons) of sugar per day for an adult of normal Body Mass Index (BMI).”

According to WHO’s Dr Francesco Branca, the director of WHO’s Department for Nutrition for Health and Development, the sugars being referred to in the Guidelines are ‘free sugars’ as opposed to ‘intrinsic sugars’.

What are ‘free sugars’?

Dr Branca defined free sugars as “monosaccharides (such as the simple sugars glucose and fructose) and the disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar)… – [that] are added to the food by the manufacturers, by the cook, by the consumer or are naturally present in honey, in fruit syrups, fruit concentrates”.

Free sugars are obviously easy to see in packs of icing, raw, castor, white, brown and other sugars on the shelves of our supermarkets. However, they are also, unfortunately, all too often invisible to us. Many foods that you may not expect to contain sugar do. Savoury items like sweet chilli sauce, barbecue sauce, tomato sauce (ketchup), Pad Thai and a lot of Thai food, relishes and chutneys.

We all know that soft drinks contain free sugars but you may be surprised to learn just how much they contain. A serving of an average soft drink, according to Dr Branca, contains some 35 g of sugar which is equivalent to 35 g of sucrose or straight added sugar!

If we limit free sugars to 10 per cent of our energy sources i.e. around 50 g per day then one soft drink represents 70 per cent of our daily needs. If, as the WHO wants us to, we reduce our intake to a mere 5 per cent, then this represents 140 per cent of our daily needs.

Fruit juices, healthy and natural that they are, represent fruit in an easy-to-consume form and are also included in the WHO list of free sugars. To me, juices are liquid calories and way too easy to overdo. Read my post on The Juice Trap and my Fact Sheet - Juices and Juicing.

Where else do you find free sugars?

Dr Branca gave the following three examples:

  • You can find them in breakfast cereals which average 8 - 14 g sugar, depending on the cereal, per bowl. (You can read my post How to buy a healthy breakfast cereal.)
  • You can also find them in condiments and sauces. An average bottled sauce has around 7 g of sugar per tablespoon.
  • Sweetened yoghurts contain approximately 10 g of added sugar per serve.

What are ‘intrinsic sugars’?

Intrinsic sugars are not included in the WHO daily intake. They are those sugars that are less accessible to the body and are either bound up some way or are present in high fibre foods that reduce the absorption of the sugar – foods such as whole fresh fruits and vegetables. 

What do these guidelines mean for you, your family and your diet?

That all depends on how much sugar you consume already. I’m guessing many people have no idea what percentage of their energy needs comes from free sugars. Let me show you how easy it is to go above the 10 per cent if you eat an average Aussie diet.


1 bowl of standard cereal 40 g – (averages 8 - 14 g sugar depending on the cereal)

If you add a tub of fruit flavoured yoghurt (about 10 g added) or liquid breakfast drink (about 13 g added), then you’ll be taking in more free sugars.

Morning tea

1 cup coffee with 1 tsp sugar (4 g sugar) + 1 medium (110 g) commercial choc chip muffin (35 g sugar)


Salad plus dressing (3.5 g  sugar) + small apple juice (10 g sugar)

Afternoon tea

1 cup tea with 1 tsp sugar (4 g sugar) + 2 plain biscuits e.g. Granita or similar (4 g sugar)


Steak, salad plus dressing, French fries and tomato sauce (8.5 g)


OK, OK let’s stop! That’s 77 g of sugar or 154 per cent of the current daily recommendation and that’s without any dessert. Add ice cream and topping or some such and you’ll be even further over.

If at some stage, you had a can of soft drink then you can add another 35 g!

So now you can see how easy it is to be over even though what’s above isn’t what most people would think of as an “excessive diet”.

What can you do about your sugar load?

Well you don’t want to be obsessive about it or chances are, you’ll give up trying.

  • The trick is to look for the large sources of sugar in your day’s food and avoid or reduce them. In surveys, it’s usually what you drink (fizzy drinks, juices, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavoured milks, iced teas) so that's where I’d start.

Then the next time you go shopping, aim to replace some of the items in your fridge with the lowest sugar versions of cereals, yoghurts, sauces and dressings.

If you’re drinking fruit juice then dilute it with tap water or mineral water. This lessens the sugar load and makes a refreshing, sparkling alternative. Avoid soft drinks except for special occasions and this is doubly important for children.

The bottom line

Speaking of children, avoid the sugar laden “lunch box snacks”. Things like muesli bars and cereal bars deliver between 6 g to  8 g of sugar per bar, both natural, from dried fruit, and added. Much better to give your kids a banana, apple or orange.

The same goes for your snacks too. Interestingly, if you cut out the choc chip muffin in the above menu you’ll bring your total sugar intake down to 46 g which is under the current guidelines.That's because they're so BIG -  which is a whole other story on portion size! 

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Catherine Saxelby About the author

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Catherine Saxelby has the answers! She is an accredited nutritionist, blogger and award-winning author. Her award-winning book My Nutritionary will help you cut through the jargon. Do you know your MCTs from your LCTs? How about sterols from stanols? What’s the difference between glucose and dextrose? Or probiotics and prebiotics? What additive is number 330? How safe is acesulfame K? If you find yourself confused by food labels, grab your copy of Catherine Saxelby’s comprehensive guide My Nutritionary NOW!