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WHO Urges Curbing Sweet Tooth for Better Health

FILE - Sugar-sweetened drinks in a store's refrigerator, Feb. 20, 2013

The World Health Organization warns that too much sugar in the diet can lead to obesity, tooth decay and other non-communicable diseases. The U.N. health agency has issued new guidelines recommending adults and children reduce their daily consumption of free sugars to less than 10 percent of their total energy intake.

The consumption of free sugars -- products such as glucose, fructose and table sugar -- has been steadily increasing over the years. And the results are bad news for public health. The World Health Organization reports worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

WHO says that in 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these, more than 600 million people were obese. In 2013, it notes 42 million children under age 5 were overweight or obese.

Francesco Branca, director of the WHO Department of Nutrition for Health, said there is solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of total energy intake reduces the risk of being overweight, obese and having tooth decay.

He added that a further reduction to below 5 percent per day would increase health benefits and almost eliminate tooth decay. He explained that 10 percent of total energy intake corresponds to 50 grams of sugar -- or 12 teaspoons -- and 5 percent is half that amount. He said free sugar is found in a majority of products sold these days.

“There was a survey in the U.S. in the supermarkets indicating that 80 percent of the products contained added sugar. Just to give you an example, an average size bowl of breakfast cereals contains four teaspoons of free sugars. If you go for a U.S.-size can of soda that contains 10 teaspoons of free sugars,” said Branca.

The free sugars that WHO considers harmful are those added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. It also warns people to beware of sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

WHO, however, said it is okay to consume the sugars found in fresh fruits and vegetables and those naturally present in milk, as there is no evidence of adverse health effects from them.

The agency says globally, sugar intake has increased by about 10 percent over the past decade, but it has risen at a much faster rate in some regions. For example, it notes in the Far East and Oceania, it has climbed by roughly 21 percent, and in the Middle East and North Africa by about 15 percent.

Branca said South America has the world's highest intake of sugar.

“In South America, we have approximately 130 grams per person, per day, so more than twice the WHO recommendation, but we also have some parts of the world where the intake is still low. It is within the WHO recommendations, such as what is happening in Equatorial and Southern Africa, where it is about 30 grams per person, per day,” said Branca.

WHO is calling on governments to implement measures to reduce free sugars intake. These include taxing products with high sugar content, including nutrition labeling of food products, and restricting the marketing to children of food and non-alcoholic drinks that are high in free sugars.