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‘Intake of added and free sugars should be as low as possible’: EFSA confirms sugar consumption a risk factor in chronic diseases

Following a request to update a 2010 safety assessment from five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), EFSA undertook a comprehensive review of the scientific literature examining the link between sugar intake and the development of various diseases, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, gout and dental caries.

“This has been a hugely challenging work so far, involving the evaluation of over 30,000 publications. Our experts and staff have made an immense effort to reach this point and applied the highest standards of scientific rigour throughout,”​ Dr Valeriu Curtui, head of EFSA’s Nutrition Unit, said today following the publication of the organisation’s draft opinion.

EFSA had been specifically asked if it would be possible to set a science-based cut-off point―called a ‘tolerable upper intake level’ or ‘UL’ ―for total dietary sugars. Below this point, sugar consumption would not cause health problems.

“The UL is not a recommended level of intake. Rather, it is a scientifically derived ‘threshold’ below which the risk of adverse health effects for the general population is negligible, but above which the intake is proven to be linked to adverse health effects, including disease,”​ EFSA said.

To determine this level ‘requires the identification of a level of sugars intake up to which no adverse health effects are observed’. Such data was not available, meaning the food safety body’s experts were not able to determine a ‘safe’ level of sugar consumption.

“While it was not possible to set a UL, EFSA’s scientists concluded that the intake of added and free sugars should be as low as possible,”​ the scientific opinion states.

Sugary drinks show strongest links to disease risk

While EFSA was unable to provide guidance on how much sugar is ‘safe’ to consume, the safety authority did confirm – to different degrees of certainty – the link between the various types of sugar in our diets and disease risk.

Dietary sugars range from those that are naturally present in foods like fruit, vegetables and milk to free sugars, which include both naturally present sugars in honey or fruit juice and refined sugars added to processed food and beverages.

Across all diseases examined, the highest degree of risk certainty was associated with consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. The link to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease was considered ‘high’ at 75-100% certainty. A connection between the consumption of sugary drinks and the development of gout was rated ‘moderate’ with a 50-75% degree of certainty, while the link to high

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