We Europeans eat too much sugar. The problem is not the sugar that is naturally present in milk and fruits but the one that manufacturers add to food and drinks.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by lunch time we tend to have exceeded the recommended maximum daily intake of 50 grams of sugar [1]. The WHO advises to eat no more than 25 grams of free sugar daily (i.e. the equivalent of 5 cubes). It would certainly help our teeth. However, our member OCU flags that most Spaniards eat about 94 grams a day without being aware of it.

The harmful effects of sugar on health are well-known, ranging from type 2 diabetes and tooth decay to heart disease. Over half of Europeans are overweight, and sugar is one of the main culprits. So it is encouraging that EU Member States have made food recipes improvement a top priority [2].

While consumers’ food is now much safer, it’s time to make it healthier.

The industry knows there is something wrong with sugar levels too. By way of example, the soft drink sector recently announced they would cut sugar by an extra 10% by 2020. In the same vein, no later than yesterday, Nestlé pledged to remove 18,000 tonnes of sugar from its products. While such grand announcements look good in the news, it is hard to grasp what they really mean for sugar levels in consumers’ fizzy drinks and breakfast cereals. Overall, the industry’s efforts to slash sugar are a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

Sneaky sugar

Packaged junk food in vending machineOf course we as consumers should go easy on sugar lumps. But the greatest chunk we ingest comes from processed food. Sugar is added to sweet and – surprisingly – salted products such as meat, fish sticks, soups and pasta sauces. Why is that? One answer is that sugar magically makes poor quality ingredients taste better.

The main problem is that companies have full control over ingredient quantities, and the amounts added are sometimes excessive. These added sugars raise concerns as they only bring calories and no nutritional benefit.

Our members have been raising awareness among consumers about the unsuspected high amounts of sugar in our food. Our German member vzbv has compiled a glossary of sugar names including dextrose, glucose, or caramel to name a few. Consumer organisations in Italy and France and Spain have developed ‘sugar calculators’ to help consumers figure out how much sugar they really eat. Tests comparing the sugar levels in a range of products regularly feature in our members’ magazines. But raising awareness only goes so far.

So what must be done?

First, policy-makers both in Brussels and other European capitals should set clear targets for sugar reduction. High sugar foodstuffs – such as soft drinks, confectionery, dairy products and breakfast cereals – should be first in line for binding cuts on sugar levels.

By lunch time we tend to have exceeded the recommended maximum daily intake of 50 grams of sugar.

shutterstock_168437519Most often, manufacturers introduce new no- or low-sugar variants but balk at changing the formula of their best-sellers. However, to make a difference, sugar reduction targets must apply across the board. As long as sugar-laden products remain on shelves, consumers will have a hard time adapting their taste buds. There should be no legislative exceptions, even for the most popular cereals or fizzy drinks.

Second, targets are meaningful only if they are met. Member States should make a point of properly monitoring that businesses effectively hit those targets, and allocate resources so food products can be checked for compliance.

This week marked the 15th anniversary of the EU’s landmark food law. While consumers’ food is now much safer, it’s time to make it healthier.

This post is part of our nutrition series. Find more in our online kitchen.

[1] We’re talking here about free sugars, which the World Health Organisation defines as sugar (e.g. glucose, table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugar naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.

[2] See the Council’s Conclusions on food product improvement adopted in June 2016. National experts were discussing this topic in Malta recently.

Posted by Pauline Constant