04.The soft drink debate
Australians, like people in many countries around the world, are getting fatter. And among other things we’re also increasingly drinking sugar-sweetened soft drinks. There’s a growing concern that there could be a link between the two.
The possible effect of excessive consumption of sugary drinks by children is especially of concern. The debate started in 2001 with a US study that found the more soft drink kids in the study drank, the greater their chance was of becoming overweight.
Earlier this year a group of experts in New Zealand prepared a report that looked at the published evidence to date on sugary drinks and obesity in children. It concluded that there’s evidence that sugary drinks play a role in promoting weight gain in kids. And Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), our national food regulator, recently reported its view that the increased consumption of sweetened drinks, such as soft drinks, is now recognised as an important, independent risk factor for the development of obesity in school-aged children.
However, not everyone agrees the evidence overall supports a link. The Australian Food and Grocery Council says the evidence is equivocal — some studies suggest a link, others don’t. It also considers it may be relevant that many studies have been conducted in the US, where drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, while Australia uses sucrose.
No doubt debate will continue at least until we have well-designed Australian studies looking at the situation here. In the meantime, it’s certainly true that sugary soft drinks aren’t essential to our diets and supply plenty of kilojoules while contributing little that’s useful nutritionally.
‘Added Sugar’ labels
Currently food labels tell you the total amount of sugars in a product. We’d like to see consumers armed with more information: we’d like manufacturers to clearly show the amount of added sugars separately, so you know how much of the sugar comes from ingredients like dried fruit or milk that bring with them vitamins and minerals, and how much is simply refined sugars.