Modern Diet Myth No. 6: Sugar is really, really bad for you

Thank goodness for the World Health Organization’s new report ‘Sugars intake for adults and children’. Now, at last, we have some actual science to go on.

WHO’s record on sugar

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a leading global health agency with a proud history of sound dietary advice, including advice about sugar. In a 1990 report, WHO recommended a limit on intake of ‘free sugars’ of no more than 10% of daily calories, which is about the current average intake of Australian adults. Free sugars means all sugars added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars in honey, fruit juices and syrups.

WHO’s rationale for limiting sugar intake was to lower the risk for tooth decay. No lower limit on intake of free sugars was recommended.

Thirteen years later WHO again looked at the science of sugar and health and found ‘convincing’ evidence that both the amount of free sugars and the frequency of sugar consumption increased the risk for tooth decay. And again WHO recommended a limit of 10% of daily calories.

The 2015 WHO report

In its latest report WHO found … wait for it … that eating too much sugar causes tooth decay and that the intake of free sugars should be limited to … wait for it … less than 10% of daily calories.

Interestingly, WHO also made a ‘conditional recommendation’ that the intake of free sugars could to be lowered to below 5% of daily calories for better prevention of tooth decay. But then WHO stated that this recommendation was based on ‘very low quality evidence’.

In this day and age it is a mystery why any health organisation would make a recommendation based on ‘very low quality evidence’. If the evidence is so poor, why didn’t WHO just stick with the old advice that there was no recommended lower limit on intake of free sugars?

WHO also reviewed the evidence in relation to whether sugar intake is related to body weight. Its recommendations are cautious e.g. WHO states that the evidence ‘suggests’ an association between reduction of free sugars intake and lower body weight in adults. There was no association in children. The quality of the evidence varied between moderate to low.

Perhaps the reason for the soft recommendation was WHO’s desire to maintain advice about free sugars, whereas other organisations have tended to focus more on sugar-sweetened beverages where there is more persuasive evidence. WHO found that substituting sugar for other carbohydrates (starch) had no effect on body weight, so there is nothing inherently fattening about sugar – it all depends on how many calories you eat.

Image: source

The myths: what WHO doesn’t say

The latest WHO report is notable for what it doesn’t say about sugar. It doesn’t say sugar is addictive, toxic, uniquely fattening, or that it gives you fatty liver, heart disease or diabetes. That’s because these are all just myths peddled by attention-seeking, non-nutritionists to boost their celebrity, sell books and make money.

Too much sugar is bad for your teeth. And sugar contains calories, which cause weight gain when consumed in excess of the body’s needs.

It’s not rocket science; it’s nutrition science.


8 thoughts on “Modern Diet Myth No. 6: Sugar is really, really bad for you

  1. There’s a certain irritating smugness embedded in this article – a sort of ‘I told you so’ smugness.

    Is there not more to the sugar ‘story’ than calories and rotten teeth – whether the ‘hard evidence’ is or is not able to take our understanding further?

    Why is there a generic reference to ‘sugar’? This would infer that pure chemical sucrose is biochemically identical to other forms of unrefined sugar such as ‘cane juice’ or dark brown sugar or honey which carry an array of micronutrients and some phytonutrients or in the case of honey, animal-based bioactives?

    Calories and dental decay aside, is the gene expression identical when one consumes these different sugar/sucrose sources? Is the glycaemic response identical? Are any additional bioactive compounds in whole founds acting on intra-cellular signalling?

    Maybe we don’t have definitive answers to these questions – but why aren’t the uncertainties at least stated – instead of peddling the same old line smug line?

    Anyone clearly listening to the dialogue of patients knows that there IS something else going on when a patient appears to be ‘hooked’ on sugar. Just because we don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t going on.

    • My apologies if this article appeared smug. That was certainly not the intention. I was trying to contrast the current hysteria and wild over-statement about the health effects of sugar with the careful, evidence-based recommendations of the World Health Organization which have been consistent over decades. The contrast is quite stark. Criticism noted though. Regards, Bill

  2. What is a safe sugar intake for gorillas residing in American zoos? Apparently formulators of gorilla chow guessed wrong. “Identified as a leading cause of death in great apes living in zoological settings, cardiovascular disease (CVD) requires advanced understanding of diagnosing, treating and monitoring affected individuals, as well as adapting techniques already in use for treatment of heart disease in humans and domestic animals.”

    When I got wind of this problem a few weeks back I contacted Elena Less, a researcher at the Cleveland Zoo. She referred me to a company that manufactures gorilla biscuits. As I suspected, gorilla chow, supposedly designed to make gorillas healthy, contains at least 6.5% fat from soybean oil. That means the gorilla intake of linoleic acid was slightly more than 50% of total fat calories.The website did not have information on the sugar content.

    Interestingly, Dr. Less was under the impression that the gorilla biscuits contained substantial amounts of saturated fat. Page 94 of her doctoral dissertation she wrote, “Biscuits may be a healthy diet item as the only source of fiber, but the high levels of sugar, starch and saturated fat they contain could have deleterious health effects.” Soybean oil contains about 16% saturated fats. That means that the saturated fat content of the biscuits was less than 1 percent of the total fat intake and way less than 1 percent of total caloric intake.

    Also of interest is the fact that the animals lost weight when gorilla biscuits were eliminated from their rations despite increased caloric intake. Page 119: “Institutions need to be prepared for weight loss even if kilocalories are doubled.”

  3. “We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” says Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. “Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases.”

    • Hello Chris. I’m reasonably comfortable with the WHO’s 10% figure for free sugars, based on the prevention of dental caries.
      That said, I think the content of free sugars in a diet is a poor measure of the nutritional quality of the diet. Two people can have the same amount of free sugars in their diets but if one derives it from nutrient-poor confectionery and the other gets their free sugars from nutrient-rich fruity yoghurts, flavoured milk and breakfast cereals, the overall nutritional quality of the diets will be very different.
      This is not an original idea – it’s drawn from expert reviews by the US Institute of Medicine and the European Food Safety Authority. Regards, Bill

      • As you noted, the overall nutritional quality of the diet is important. Excerpt from abstract: “In the wild, western lowland gorillas travel long distances while foraging and consume a diet composed primarily of large quantities of green plant material. This diet is high in fiber and low in caloric density. In contrast, gorillas in North American zoos consume a diet that contains a high percentage of commercially prepared biscuits and domesticated fruit.”

        The mineral content of the diet is important for the proper utilization of macro nutrients. Apparently supposedly “healthy” gorilla biscuits do not contain enough mineral content to compensate for the dilution effects of the free sugar ingredient.

  4. The game is up….Bill Shrapnel……Tell the truth!

    The health experts responsible for the Australian Paradox saga have “quietly made major corrections to a controversial research paper claiming Australians are drinking less soft drinks now than 20 years ago.”

    But, even though the charts in the paper say that consumption of soft drink has indeed INCREASED, they maintain that their corrections “have no material impact on the conclusions of our paper.”

    How does that work?

    One of their charts shows that between 1994 and 2006, sales of sugary soft drinks INCREASED by 30%. Originally, they claimed that this very chart showed a 10% reduction in sugary soft drink. Now they say they MEANT to say “market share of nutritively sweetened beverages decreased by 10% points.” But, they still maintain that sugary soft drink consumption is reducing. How…?

    Their other statistics were based on ABS data that has now been discontinued because the ABS could NOT reliably count sugar consumption since so much of it was consumed as added sugar; hidden sugars in products could not accurately be counted. Yet, those discontinued statistics are still sighted in this paper as evidence.

    I wonder if scientists and other experts ever feel embarrassed when they make conclusions that make them look (well, there’s no really kind way to say this) stupid so that they can keep their sponsorship payments or funding. I know I would be.

    Begs the question…why didnt you include bottled fruit juices, slushies, milkshakes etc in your study? If you are going to show a study on reduced sugar consumption, the whole truth and nothing but the truth needs to be studied and disclosed , not just cherry picked to support a THEORY.

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