EFSA’s scientists have completed a comprehensive safety assessment of sugars in the diet and their potential links to health problems. The study concluded that “intakes of added and free sugars should be as low as possible as part of a nutritionally adequate diet; this is in line with current recommendations. However, the scientific evidence did not allow us to set a tolerable upper intake level for dietary sugars, which was the original goal of this assessment,” said Prof. Dominique Turck, the Chair of EFSA’s panel of nutrition experts who carried out the assessment
Different categories and sources of sugars can be naturally occurring or added to our foodstuffs. ‘Added sugars’ are refined sugars used in food preparation and as table sugar, EFSA clarified, while ‘Free sugars’ include ‘added sugars’ plus those naturally present in honey and syrups, as well as in fruit and vegetable juices and juice concentrates. ‘Total sugars’ are all sugars present in the diet, including those naturally present in fruit, vegetables, and milk.
The research team received input during a public consultation held last year over a draft version of the opinion. The scientists used the findings to refine and clarify important aspects of their work. Prof. Turck said: “We underlined there are uncertainties about chronic disease risk for people whose consumption of added and free sugars is below 10% of their total energy intake. This is due to the scarcity of studies at doses in this range.
Data limitations also meant it was not possible to compare the effects of sugars classified as added or free, overall, he pointed out.
Sources of sugars and health problems
Sugar consumption is a known cause of a number of health issues, from dental cavities to various chronic metabolic diseases including obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and type 2 diabetes. EFSA detailed. “Although we could not assess their contributions, the impact of other important contributors to sugar intake should be considered by national authorities when setting food-based dietary guidelines,” stated Prof Turck.
These foods could not be assessed because of limited data. They include sweets, cakes and desserts, other sweetened beverages such as sweetened milk and milkshakes, and yogurts.
Infographic: Sugar consumption and health problems
Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden made the original request to EFSA in 2017 to assess the potential health risks for consumers from excess intake of dietary sugars.
EFSA’s review was so wide-ranging that it allowed its scientists to prioritize the data gaps and research needed to set a tolerable upper intake level for dietary sugars in the future, the Agency said.
Over 30,000 publications were screened for this research, which helped identify several areas to target for researchers and technicians. “The pooling and reuse of individual human data from research studies would be a valuable source of information. Research should focus both on the health effects of dietary sugars and on the impact of clinical and community interventions designed to reduce sugar intake,” added Prof Turck.
The findings will support national public health authorities in Europe updating future advice for their consumers.