Prior to joining the O’Neill Institute, Disney’s Mary Poppins’ “A Spoon Full of Sugar” would never have triggered for me a single thought about obesity or diabetes. After all, the message is that keeping a positive attitude can make the most boring of tasks fun, or at the very least, bearable. However, the funny thing about working in the public health space is that one becomes sensitive to such things. More and more, child obesity is a growing concern around the world and marketing sugary drinks and snacks to children is one of the main contributors to this problem. Now, the more I learn about the effects of sugar in our bodies, “a spoon full of sugar” becomes much less appealing as a metaphor for looking at the bright side of life.

Sugar falls from a spoon into a pile of sugar below. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), we should be limiting our sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day, 12 at the most. On March 4, WHO issued new guidelines recommending that our daily sugar intake be reduced to less than 10% and that a further reduction to 5% (6 teaspoons) would lead to actual health benefits.

WHO was clear that the guidelines refer to “free sugars” (monosaccharides, such as glucose and fructose, and disaccharides, such as sucrose and table sugar) that are “added by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally found in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit concentrates.” WHO does not include sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and milk, as there is no “reported evidence” that these are bad for our health. What is more, WHO has spelled out that consuming “free sugars” above the recommended amount can not only lead to unhealthy weight gain but also to tooth decay, which affects 60% to 90% of children worldwide and is “the most common” noncommunicable disease (NCD).

It should come as no surprise that these recommendations are intended to influence policy at the domestic level and thus work toward the prevention and control of NCDs, particularly unhealthy weight gain and tooth decay. WHO identified the need to address skepticism around whether existing evidence on the negative health effects of sugar justified a “appreciable reduction” of sugar intake. Governments are called to integrate them into nutrition policies, programs, and interventions. However, WHO appropriately recognized that this global health challenge cannot be tackled by governments alone—other actors’ play critical roles. The guidelines target a “wide audience.” Appropriately, this includes “government officials, scientists, the food industry and other partners involved in the development, design and implementation of policies and programmes in public health nutrition.”

As Sarah Roache highlighted in a previous post, the law, and thus public health lawyers, can play a crucial role in “de-normalizing” unhealthy behavior (i.e., removing unhealthy habits out of our daily lives) and promoting healthy diets. An effective response to the NCDs epidemic is complex, and the key is to ensure that those involved in the design and promotion of laws and regulations are sufficiently informed about the issue and that they work across sectors domestically, as well as in tandem with regional and international efforts.