The Government’s SACN Carbohydrate (& Sugar!) Report – are we demonising the wrong foods?

by | Jul 17, 2015

Today saw the publication of the much awaited Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition “Carbohydrates and Health” Report. This Report examines evidence from robust research, and the key recommendations are that we should aim to reduce our intake of free sugars* to 5% of our daily calorie intake, and also up our fibre intake to 30g a day. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, we’re currently on about 12% when it comes to sugars, and around 18g in terms of fibre. So, we have a long way to go….

My view is that we need to cut down on sugar and that we need targets to aim for. The acknowledgement that we’re eating too much sugar is huge progress, particularly since it’s based on the evidence. However, it’s my hope that Public Health England (PHE), who will be responsible for translating this science into recommendations for the public, will consider the impracticality of cutting down sugar to just 5% of daily energy – the equivalent of about 5-6 teaspoons of sugar for an average woman (7-8 tsp for men). I hope that dietitians and qualified public health nutritionists who work with people on the ground will be consulted before PHE translates the SACN Report into Government Policy.

There’s been a media frenzy today about the limit on free sugars. Unfortunately, there is little emphasis on the crucial fibre part of the recommendation …

Are we demonising the wrong foods?

Research suggests that when we eat too much sugar (especially as sugar-rich drinks), we tend to also have a high calorie intake, so  it makes sense to reduce our intake of sugar. But we need to be practical and we need to do this in a way that doesn’t compromise our intake of important nutrients.

I’ve seen media stories focussing heavily on the “hidden sugar” in nutrient dense foods such as whole grain breakfast cereals, fruit smoothies, peanut butter, and yogurt, when we should be supporting people to make healthier choices, and to cut down on energy dense foods like cakes, biscuits, and sugar-sweetened drinks. There is a place for all foods; healthy eating is about balance, enjoyment and portion control.

The Report appears to have also caused confusion – today’s Radio 2 programme with Jeremy Vine questioned the free sugars content of fresh fruit.

Getting practical

Are we really all going to have plain yogurt and chopped fruit in place of flavoured yogurts? Yogurt is a nutrient-dense food and there is evidence to suggest that yogurt eaters have better diets.

Are we going to replace fruit juice with fresh fruit or milk? 150ml of fruit juice counts as one of your five-a-day. Having it once a day with a meal is good advice.

Are children going to eat high fibre low sugar cereals daily? Helping children to reduce the need for sweet tasting foods is a good idea. But fortified breakfast cereals are typically an important source of essential nutrients and the National Diet & Nutrition Survey (NDNS) showed that breakfast cereals contributed only 5-8% of our daily sugar intake.

Is sugar the big culprit?

We can’t blame sugar for our rising rates of obesity. Sugar alone is not responsible for the obesity epidemic – a whole host of factors, including our sedentary lifestyles, high calorie high sugar foods and drinks, and large portion sizes are to blame.

Sugar-rich foods and drinks tend to be high in calories. We need to cut our calories, so eating fewer cakes, biscuits, confectionery, sugar-sweetened drinks, and so on, is a good idea.

SACN expects that this move to 5% energy from free sugars will lead to a 100kcal deficit. If we were all to commit to eating two less biscuits a day we’d achieve the 100kcal deficit. (You could say the best named biscuit is “Party Rings” – they tell you clearly when to eat them!).

My 5 top tips

  1. Compare labels and go for brands that are lower in sugar and calories.
  1. Sugars found in fruit (whole, tinned in water, frozen, dried), milk, and plain yogurt are natural sugars, not free sugars. They are exempt from this advice. But sugar in fruit juice is free sugars. So although they give you nutrients, watch your portion sizes of  fruit juice and smoothies to limit your sugar and calorie intake, and have them with a meal to reduce the effect on your teeth.
  1. Currently you can’t tell how much free sugar is in a food product. Check the label and be wary of ingredients like sugar, glucose, honey, molasses, syrup, dextrose, natural brown sugar, and treacle –  these are all free sugars.
  1. Consider the whole food, not the sugar. Yogurt brings calcium, protein and magnesium, peanut butter brings fibre and essential fats, fruit smoothies bring vitamin C, potassium and fibre, and fortified breakfast cereals bring B vits and iron.
  1. Cut down on the obviously sugary foods – sugar-rich drinks, sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolates, sweet pastries, and desserts. If you’re an “all or none” person, you may find it easier to cut it out all at once. If you can be disciplined to stop once you’ve started, cut down gradually.

My advice hasn’t changed: Enjoy your food, eat a variety, eat more fruit and veg and more fibre, less fat, sugar and salt, and allow yourself small amounts of what you fancy.


*Free Sugars: sugar added to food, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.

I work with the food industry to help them create healthier versions of their products and to improve the accuracy of their nutrition communication. These are my own views and are not based on opinion from any of my clients.


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