Food firms ‘sow seeds of doubt’ in WHO

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

WHO issued a strong recommendation for sugar to form less than 10% of an individual’s daily energy intake
WHO issued a strong recommendation for sugar to form less than 10% of an individual’s daily energy intake

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World Health Organisation (WHO) sugar guidance is “disappointing” and suggests food firms have persuaded it to take a softer line on consumption, claims pressure group Action on Sugar (AoS).

The WHO published guidance yesterday (March 4) making a strong recommendation for daily free sugar consumption to form less than 10% of adults’ and children’s energy intake every day. It said a reduction to 5% was only a conditional recommendation, because few scientific studies existed to substantiate that.

AoS commented: “There is absolutely NO nutritional requirement for free sugars in our diets, therefore AoS is disappointed that the 5% recommendation is ‘conditional’.

“The WHO used the GRADE ​[Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation] system for evaluating the evidence which is useful for drug trials, but is not appropriate for the links between diet and health.

“This has allowed the food industry to sow the seeds of doubt amongst the WHO, who have failed to come up with the strong recommendation that is so vitally needed, especially for children.”

‘Dirty tricks’

Simon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool and AoS advisor, said he believed behind-the-scenes food industry lobbying “resembles tactics previously used by Big Tobacco”. ​He claimed “denials, delays, dirty tricks”​ and “dodgy scientists disseminating distorted evidence”​ had all played a part in the food industry’s strategy.

The AoS called for government to bring in effective legislation to curb sugar consumption.

Barbara Gallani, director of regulation, science and health at trade body the Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the WHO’s advice. “The WHO’s final guidance to reduce daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy supports current UK policy.”

Responding to critics, she added: “The hysterical food and nutrition messages we are increasingly seeing peddled by a range of stakeholders often focus on individual nutrients and are rarely backed by robust or up-to-date science.

“These messages unfortunately are misleading, unhelpful and at the expense of the simple message of promoting a balanced diet within the context of a healthy lifestyle.”


By contrast, Julian Cooper, head of food science at AB Sugar, took issue with the WHO, claiming he was “surprised” ​it had stuck with the draft guidance it had issued in March last year.

“We welcome the opportunity to review and understand in more detail the scientific evidence used to develop these new guidelines. It appears for both recommendations ‘moderate’ and ‘very low quality’ evidence has been used in the process respectively.”

He also challenged the WHO’s reference to sugar being “hidden”​ in foods consumers did not expect to contain it.

“It’s important to note that sugars are not ‘hidden’ in food and beverages in the UK. There are clear European food laws which ensure all ‘total sugars’ are labelled within the nutritional information to help inform and educate consumers of what is contained within their foods and drinks.”

Balanced diet

The European Committee of Sugar Manufacturers warned that any advice for free sugars to make up less than 5% of energy intake would significantly hit consumers’ understanding of a balanced diet.

It would, the group argued, undermine healthy eating messages such as the 5-a-Day campaign and therefore needed to be based on robust evidence.

“In practice, such a threshold would be exceeded for instance with the drinking of a mere glass of orange juice,”​ it stated.

It also said the WHO intake recommendations were based purely on dental health data. “The authors of the WHO-mandated systematic review on ‘free’ sugars and weight gain concluded that any effect of sugar on weight gain is purely due to the consumption of excess calories and not a specific effect of sugar per se.

“WHO and OECD ​[Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] data shows that in western countries, the trend of dental caries prevalence in children and adolescents has declined over the last 35–40 years while the average sucrose supply in these countries has remained constant,”​ it added.

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