France targets hidden sugars

Related tags Sugars Nutrition Glucose Sugar

AFSSA, the French food safety authority, has called for a
significant reduction of sugars added to processed foods alongside
stronger backing for foods containing wholegrains and high fibre.

It has also proposed a radical overhaul of the labelling of sugars in food products to make it easier for consumers to select foods based on nutritional value.

But it advises that the glycaemic index, which ranks foods based on the rate at which their sugars are absorbed, is too complicated and lacking in evidence to support its health benefits to be included in nutritional labelling.

France, like many western nations, is beginning to take action to stem the rise in obesity, particularly in children, of whom 19 per cent are now overweight or obese. More than 40 per cent of adults are also overweight or obese.

The report published by the Agence française de sécurité sanitaire des aliments last week made many recommendations similar to those already proposed in the US and the UK - a removal of vending machines in schools, a ban on advertising of foods to children during peak hours, and better on-pack labelling of sugars.

But it has also focused closely on the hidden sugar in processed foods, underlining the rise in consumption in the last 15 years. The French consume fewer and fewer complex sugars, such as those found in potatoes and bread, while most of the foods containing simple sugars like glucose and saccharose - fizzy drinks, fruit juices and dairy desserts - have soared.

France's national nutrition programme has set a goal for a 25 per cent reduction over the next five years in consumption of 'simple' sugars, or monosaccharides and disaccharides. But the working group involved in the new report on sugar said this reduction should primarily come from those sugars added to foods, such as saccharose, glucose and fructose found in chocolate bars and fizzy drinks.

More than 70 per cent of saccharose consumption comes from processed foods, it noted, but it is not practical to place a limit on consumption of all simple sugars "in order that non-sugary dairy products or fruits and vegetables with a good nutritional value are not penalised".

The input of the food industry will be key to this goal, the report added, especially those marketing products for young children whose tastebuds are in development stage.

Meanwhile consumption of foods with unrefined sugars, such as cereal-based products and fruits and vegetables should be encouraged.

"The bakery sector should increase the share of products produced with wholemeal flour,"​ it suggests.

Better labelling should also improve consumer awareness of sugar. The working group proposes the use of the terms 'complex', 'simple' and 'added' to define sugar content on labels.

"It would be important for the consumer to be able to distinguish between sugars naturally present in foods (the fructose in fruit, or lactose in milk) and those added for reasons of formulation or taste."​ the report says.

But it also adds that "the use of the glycaemic index, not widely used in industry today and relatively complicated, cannot be recommended for the general population, either for educational purposes or on labelling".

AFSSA's analysis of the value of the GI underlines some of the issues that will face companies looking to promote the GI concept in the future. While UK supermarket Tesco has taken the step of introducing GI labels on some of its foods, a spokeswoman for the French authority told "The GI is not a reliable measure of a food as it loses its real value when consumed as part of a meal, where other foods will influence insulin production."

"We also asked if there were any long-term studies to show real evidence of its health benefits for the general population."

The conclusion that it is yet too early to recommend the use of the GI for the general population could also influence whether future European regulation on health claims permits reference to the GI.

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