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Sugar's role in a balanced diet

Published: 01/03/2021

Sugar is a vital ingredient in so many of our favourite foods but what is its role in a balanced diet? Marie-Christine Ribera, Director General of CEFS, Europe’s sugar manufacturers, tells us more. 

Sugar has been at the centre of heated debates about its impact on our health, and as such it is often targeted by EU policy initiatives. If not properly framed, these initiatives will not deliver meaningful solutions to health issues. So, what is sugar and what is its role in a balanced diet?

Sugar means sugars. There are actually many types of sugars. Besides glucose, fructose and sucrose, which are found in fruits, vegetables and honey, there is maltose, a sugar produced by starch breakdown and found in germinating cereals such as barley, and lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products. All of these sugars occur naturally. They are digested the same way, whether they occur naturally or are added to food products, and they all deliver the same calories as any other carbohydrate: 4kcal/g.

Sugar means foodstuff. When people use the term “sugar”, they typically refer to table sugar, which is sucrose, composed of glucose and fructose, and extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane. It has been used for many centuries to make our traditional homemade foods.

Sugar means more than just taste. Generally speaking, people solely associate sugar with sweet taste. However, sugar is multifunctional and used in food and drinks for many other purposes: providing structure and texture to food, it is also key for fermentation (dough rising, sparkling wine), for giving colour to food and for better conservation.

Sugar means agriculture. CEFS’ members produce in over a hundred factories more than 17 million tonnes of sugar, processing above 105 million tonnes of sugar beet across the EU on 1.5 million hectares of land. They sustain around 360,000 direct and indirect jobs, many of which are high-quality, well remunerated employment in some of the EU’s most vulnerable rural areas. It is worth pointing out that 1 job generates 14 jobs along the chain.

Sugar means bio-based economy. The EU beet sugar industry is a key contributor to the EU bio-based economy valorising all products arising from the sugar manufacturing process, hence minimising waste. Besides sugar, our industry’s products include food ingredients, animal feed, green chemistry products, and renewable ethanol for food and non-food uses.

CEFS stands behind the overall objective of the Green Deal and its related initiatives to make the EU’s economy sustainable, simply because it is already a sustainable sector on the path to becoming even greener.

When it comes to the Farm to Fork Strategy and its goal to facilitate consumers’ path toward healthy and sustainable diets, CEFS supports all practices that actually help improve people’s health. In the end, we all want the same thing: a truly effective solution to the problems of obesity and noncommunicable diseases.

Healthy foods or healthy diets? There are no good or bad foods, only healthy and unhealthy dietary patterns. Decreasing obesity and non-communicable diseases will not be achieved by focusing on individual nutrients such as sugars. The discussion on sugars cannot be disconnected from the other carbohydrates consumed. It cannot set aside the fact that sugars reduction often has no impact on a product’s calorie content (since less sugar does not necessarily mean fewer calories!). Nor can it be disconnected from overall and individual eating habits and lifestyles.

To be effective, nutrition policies must reflect the state of the science. Fighting overweight and obesity is crucial because it is at the origin of diet-related non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer. Nutrition-related policies must be framed so they contribute to solving this issue of weight gain.

Obesity is a complex and multifaceted issue, but which tends to be caused by an imbalance between energy intake (consumption of all types of food and beverages, including sugars) and energy expenditure (the energy our body actually uses). Therefore, any measure taken regarding nutrition must be framed to encourage calorie reductions in products and in consumers’ diets. Educating consumers about nutrition and health is key in this context and will allow them to compose a healthy, balanced diet and live a balanced lifestyle.

No one can contest that sugar is a part of such a healthy and balanced diet.

CEFS looks forward to engaging in the forthcoming discussions on reformulation, nutrition labelling and nutrient profiles. For more information, please visit our website (with CEFS’ contribution to the “From Farm to Fork” Strategy Communication), and follow us on Twitter @SugarEurope.

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