Fizzy and soft drinks are a particular problem, with four to ten-year-olds consuming nearly a third of sugars in their diets this way.
The independent body of expert nutritionists wants people to halve the daily intake of sugar.
Consuming sugary drinks are linked to tooth decay, the rise in childhood obesity and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In the first wide-ranging report on the impact of sugar on health since the 1990s, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which advises Public Health England and other government agencies on nutrition, said that people should cut the amount of sugars they consume daily from 10 per cent to 5 per cent – equivalent to seven teaspoons.
The type of sugar that is being targeted is ‘free sugar’ – that is all sugar except that found in fruit or milk.
This includes honey, the sugar naturally found in fruit juice, syrups, and table sugar.
People are also being advised to only consume one 150 mililitre of fruit juice or smoothie a day because of the high levels of sugar they contain.
The report recommends that free sugars should be cut to:
- 19g or 5 sugar cubes (three to five teaspoons) for children aged four to six;
- 24g or 6 sugar cubes (four to six teaspoons) for children aged seven to ten;
- 30g or 7 sugar cubes (five to seven teaspoons) for children over 11 and adults.
Professor Ian Macdonald, chair of the SACN Carbohydrates and Health working group, said, ‘The evidence is stark – too much sugar is harmful to health and we all need to cut back.
‘The clear and consistent link between a high sugar diet and conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes is the wake-up call we need to rethink our diet. Cut down on sugars, increase fibre and we’ll all have a better chance of living longer, healthier lives.’
The Government has accepted the recommendations and said that it would be using them to develop a national strategy on childhood obesity later this year.
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said, ‘We’re asking parents to take a big step to establish a lifetime of healthy eating habits for their children by replacing sugary drinks with sugar free and no added sugar drinks, lower fat milks or water.
‘Sugary drinks have no place in a child’s daily diet, but account for almost a third of their daily sugar intake.’
Commenting on the report, Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said, ‘The statistics are sobering and speak for themselves: one in five children start primary school overweight or obese, rising to one in three by the time they leave; and 27 per cent of five-year-olds in England have tooth decay.
‘Today’s report illustrates the clear link between sugar intake and increased weight gain in children and adolescents, as well as poor dental health. It makes a strong recommendation that if the nation is to get to grips with the obesity epidemic, the amount of sugar our children are consuming must be reduced.
‘It is salutary to learn that there has been no reduction in the population’s sugar intake over the last five years. It’s clear that nudging people into changing behaviours isn’t working, nor is relying on industry to reduce sugar in its products voluntarily.’
The RCPCH also urged the Government to urgently evaluate the effect of bringing in taxes on sugary drinks and unhealthy foods.
Early years settings
The Children's Food Trust said that national guidelines on food in childcare were getting children into healthier habits, limiting the amount of sugar at nursery, pre-school or with a childminder.
But nutritionist and head of evaluation Jo Nicholas said that it was 'tough for parents to navigate the claims food manufacturers and retailers make about food and drinks they market for children', and said food labels needed to be 'clearer and more consistent'.
Referring to the report's other findings that children were not eating enough fibre, she added that families often turned to 'wholegrain breakfast cereals, bread and pasta - often the foods which contain hidden sugar'.
Public Health England is finalising a review looking at the evidence for bringing in measures to cut sugar consumption, around issues such as marketing and advertising of high-sugar food and drink and a tax on sugar, which will be published later this summer.
Sugars in the diet of four- to ten-year-olds, quoted in the SACN report
- 30 per cent from soft drinks and fruit juice
- 29 per cent from biscuits, cakes and breakfast cereals
- 22 per cent from sweets, chocolate, table sugar, jams and other sweet spreads
- 12 per cent from yoghurts, fromage frais, ice-cream and other diary desserts
Source: The National Diet and Nutrition Survey