HomeHealthThe harmful role of sugars in the diet, EFSA opinion

The harmful role of sugars in the diet, EFSA opinion

Consumption of sugars adversely affects health and should be minimized. This was stated by the EFSA Panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens (NDA) of EFSA in the scientific opinion published on 28.2.22. (1)

The EFSA opinion on sugars

The evaluation EFSA was born from request advanced in 2016 by 5 EU countries in Northern Europe: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In fact, the health authorities of the 5 countries had asked theAuthority European Food Safety to define a tolerable level of sugar intake based on data are extracted existing in scientific literature on the correlation between sugar consumption and chronic metabolic diseases, pathologies in pregnancy and dental caries.

The analysis of hundreds of scientific studies led the NDA committee to the conclusion that 'in a nutritionally correct diet, the intake of added sugars and free sugars should be as low as possible, which is already in line with current recommendations', as stated by Professor Dominique Turck, chair of the EFSA Human Nutrition Expert Group, who conducted the evaluation. Nonetheless, 'scientific evidence has not allowed us to establish the maximum tolerable intake level for sugars in human nutrition'.

From sugary drinks to fruit juices

Sugars which EFSA refers to are all foodstuffs, both natural and added, present in the diet (total sugars). These are the main types of sugars (mono and disaccharides) present in diets (such as glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, lactose, maltose and trehalose).

THEAuthority recalls the classification in three strands.

1) Added sugars, namely the refined ones used in food preparation and as table sugar.

2) Free sugars, which include both those naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit and vegetable juices and concentrated juices as well as "added sugars".

Foods which contribute most to the intake of added and free sugars are table sugar, honey, syrups, confectionery and sweet desserts, drinks and baked goods (with high variability between the various EU countries).

3) Sugars naturally present in food, such as milk, fruit and vegetables.

Consumption for adults and children

The main source of sugars in the diet of Europeans are the sugary drinks. Fruit juices, baked goods and sweets also contribute to excesses. Among children and young people up to 18 years of age, sweetened milk and milk-based products are added.

Doubtless, sugars are a useful source of energy. And some types, such as glucose, are indispensable for the proper functioning of the heart and brain. Carbohydrates contained in starchy foods can also be used by the body as a source of glucose. But the dose must be well calibrated, otherwise serious disorders and diseases.

The harmful role of sugars

Following the requests of the 5 countries Nordic, EFSA verified the scientific evidence (post 2010) on the correlation between sugar consumption and damage to health. The conclusions are uncertain, except for dental caries and the premise that excessive consumption of sugars generates an accumulation in the body, for example in the form of fat to be used as a reserve. If this reserve is not used by the body it can build up over time and cause health problems.

In detail, recalls EFSA, sugar consumption is related to

caries. Food sugars are metabolized by plaque microorganisms into organic acids which demineralise enamel and dentin, subsequently causing tooth decay. Sucrose is also known to contribute to the formation of dental plaque,

chronic metabolic diseases. Excessive (not consumed) energy intake and consequent weight gain appears to be the main mechanism by which dietary sugar intake can contribute to the development of chronic metabolic diseases.

Diseases by type of sugar

In an infographic, EFSA indicates the correlation between sugar consumption and the onset of diseases (in addition to caries, which is always present):

- added and free sugars (from added sugar in coffee, drinks and home preparations to industrial products): obesity, fatty liver, type 2 diabetes, excess 'bad' cholesterol (LDL), hypertension,

- fructose: cardiovascular diseases, gout,

- sugary drinks: obesity, fatty liver, type 2 diabetes, excess 'bad' cholesterol (LDL), cardiovascular disease, gout, hypertension. Consumption of sugary drinks is also related to gestational diabetes and underweight newborn syndrome,

- fruit juices and nectars: obesity, type 2 diabetes, gout,

- sweets, cakes and desserts, others sugary drinks, including sweetened milk and milkshakes, yogurt. All sources of added and free sugars, already mentioned.

The EFSA opinion can help EU Member States to define effective national targets / recommendations, such as measures adopted in Great Britain, chosen by the WHO as model to counteract excess sugar and calories.

Marta Strinati


(1) EFSA Panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens (NDA), Dominique Turck, Torsten Bohn et al. Tolerable upper intake level for dietary sugars. 28.2.22. EFSA Journal  https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2022.7074

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".

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