Just in time for January (the month of resolutions big and small) a documentary investigating Ireland’s consumption of sugar was aired on RTE called Sugar Crash1 with the Irish nation identified as one of the highest consumers of sugar, with an average of 24 teaspoons of sugar per day. Are we really that sweet? Can we shed more light on it? What does that actually mean for our health?
The term sugar is a very broad term. A lot of foods we eat contain naturally occurring, or intrinsic sugars, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juice and milk sugars. Free sugars or ‘added sugars’ are sugars that are added to the foods we eat, either by the manufacturer or the consumer themselves, for example table sugar. Sugars present in honey, syrups and concentrates are also considered to be free or added sugars.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends adults and children consume no more ‘free sugars’ than 10% of their total energy intake. So when the WHO makes this recommendation they mean roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar per day2.
So is the 24 teaspoons of sugar per day quoted in Sugar Crash accurate?
On average, Irish teenagers and children consume about 65g/d (grams per day) of added sugars which is about 16 teaspoons of sugar and 12 to 15% of their total energy intake. According to the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA) most recent data, Irish adults consume on average 91.6 grams, i.e. approximately 23 teaspoons, of total sugar per day, which is about 14 teaspoons of added sugars.
Therefore, average intakes of added sugars are actually not as high as the 24 teaspoons per day stated in the show, although they still remain above the WHO recommendations.
However it’s important to note that the population average is a blunt measure and does not give the full understanding of the profile of intakes across the population. Some consumers will have intakes that are lower and others will have higher intakes. These are normally represented by population percentiles (e.g. P10 for low consumer and P90 for high consumers). These statistics were not provided in the research, but would be very important to understand.