Sugars and health: a review of current evidence and future policy

Proc Nutr Soc. 2017 Aug;76(3):400-407. doi: 10.1017/S0029665116002846. Epub 2016 Dec 5.


The automation of the process of extracting sugars in the 1900s reduced cost and increased availability of sugars leading to a dramatic rise in consumption, which reached a peak in the 1970s. There are different definitions for sugars not naturally available in foods, and free sugars is the term used by WHO. The epidemiological evidence of the associations between sugars and obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus is fairly strong and consistent, particularly for sugar sweetened drinks in adults. The Department of Health in the UK and many other countries have recently updated their recommendations for free sugars as a result of this scientific evidence. In the UK the recommended amount of free sugars is currently 5 % of energy (reduced from 10 %), which is difficult to meet and very different from current British dietary patterns. Reducing intakes of free sugars is a challenge and will necessitate a range of different actions and policies. Public Health England has put forward eight suggestions but the four most likely to improve dietary behaviour based on available evidence are social marketing, reduction of marketing of high sugar foods and drinks to children, reformulation and reductions in portion size and a sugar excise tax. Any action taken needs to be evaluated to check inequalities are not widened. The new childhood obesity strategy has incorporated some but not all of these strategies and may not go far enough. It is likely that government policies alone will not be sufficient and a change in the food culture is necessary to see real progress.

Keywords: 2DM type 2 diabetes mellitus; NMES non-milk extrinsic sugars; SSB sugar sweetened beverages; Behaviour change; Free sugars; Non-milk extrinsic sugars; Nutrition policy; Nutritional epidemiology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Adult
  • Biomedical Research / methods
  • Biomedical Research / trends
  • Child
  • Child Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Congresses as Topic
  • Diet, Carbohydrate-Restricted* / trends
  • Diet, Healthy* / trends
  • Dietary Sugars / adverse effects*
  • Dietetics / methods
  • Dietetics / trends
  • Energy Intake
  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Policy* / trends
  • Nutritional Sciences / methods
  • Nutritional Sciences / trends
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Pediatric Obesity / epidemiology
  • Pediatric Obesity / prevention & control
  • Risk
  • Societies, Scientific
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology
  • Weight Gain


  • Dietary Sugars