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a selection of sugary food including sweets, fruit, fizzy drink and cake

Researchers at Oxford Population Health have found that higher intake of free sugars, which mostly include added sugars and those naturally present in honey and fruit juice, is associated with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The results are published today in BMC Medicine.

The current World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines recommend that a person’s sugar consumption should be kept to below 5% of total daily energy intake but these recommendations are largely based on limited evidence that this reduces the risk of tooth decay. The findings of this study strengthen the WHO guidelines by providing evidence that following their recommendations may also lower a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

The researchers analysed data from 110,497 individuals who completed at least two dietary assessments as participants in the UK Biobank study. The researchers followed the participants’ health over an average of 9.4 years. During the follow-up period, total cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke combined), heart disease and stroke occurred in 4,188, 3,138, and 1,124 participants, respectively.

Key findings:

  • Higher free sugar intake from foods such as sugary drinks, fruit juice and sweets was associated with higher risk of all cardiovascular disease outcomes;
  • For every 5% higher energy intake from free sugars, risk of developing cardiovascular disease was 7% higher;
  • The risk of developing heart disease was 6% higher and the risk of experiencing a stroke was 10% higher for every 5% higher in calorie intake attributed to free sugar consumption;
  • Consuming five grams higher fibre per day was associated with a 4% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but this association did not remain significant after accounting for the impact of body mass index on risk.

Dr Rebecca Kelly, lead author of the paper, said ‘Our research demonstrates the importance of considering the type and source of sugars consumed when assessing the associations between sugar and cardiovascular health. Replacing free sugars with non-free sugars, such as those naturally occurring in whole fruits and vegetables, combined with a higher fibre intake may help protect against cardiovascular disease.’