Wednesday 4th March 2015

Nobody can have escaped the recent and widely reported concern about sugar consumption, particularly in young people. In the UK, we consume too much added sugars, and this has rightfully led to calls for us to reduce our intake.

This has been emphasised in the WHO Guidelines, Sugar Intake for Adults and Children, published today, with the following recommendations:-

  • a reduced intake of free sugars throughout the lifecourse (strong recommendation).
  • a reduced intake of free sugars in both adults and children to less than 10% of total energy intake (strong recommendation).
  • a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake (conditional recommendation1).

Current UK recommendations for sugar in the UK refer to non-milk extrinsic sugars (NMES) which are similar to free sugars but do not equate exactly. Free sugars include all added sugars in foods and drinks in whatever form including table sugar, honey, syrups, and nectars, as well as the sugars naturally present in fruit, vegetable and pulses (e.g. soy, chickpeas) that have been juiced, pureed or made into pastes. Ingredients added such as lactose and galactose are also considered to be free sugars. NMES also includes 50% of the fruit sugars from dried, stewed or canned fruit within the definition.

What does intake of NMES at 5% of total energy intake look like?

BNF has recently carried out some simple dietary modelling to show this.


Drinks: Water can be consumed throughout the day so that fluid requirements are met (8-10 glasses a day). No or low-calorie drinks can also be included.


Notes on table

  • Nutritional composition data taken from McCance and Widdowson's Composition of Foods 7th Edition.
  • Additional NMES data sourced from data used for the National Diet and Nutrition Survey. This is not widely available to consumers as food labels provide information about total sugars.
  • NMES includes 50% dried stewed or canned fruit. Other descriptors used (e.g. added sugars or free sugars) would not include this.
  • Portion sizes have been derived from averages provided by MAFF, retail averages or the NHS 5 A DAY portion size guide including 150ml only of unsweetened juice.
  • Reduced fat/low fat, reduced salt versions and reduced sugar versions used where available.


Helping consumers to reduce their intake of non-milk extrinsic sugars

Food labels display total sugars and not NMES. Consumers, however, can be guided by the UK’s Eatwell Guide to make informed dietary choices, and can reduce the amount of NMES in their diets by limiting foods and drinks high in added sugars such as some sugar sweetened beverages, sweets, cakes and biscuits.

The example meal plan above shows that it is possible to limit NMES intake to 5% of total energy intake, but the food plans are not representative of average diets in the UK. As the average NMES intake of adults is around 11.5% of total energy intake, such a reduction would pose a considerable challenge for consumers, requiring substantial changes in dietary behaviour.


1Conditional recommendations are made when there is less certainty about the balance between the benefits and harms or disadvantages of implementing a recommendation. This means that policy-making will require substantial debate and involvement of various stakeholders for translating them into action.


Updated July 2018