In today’s world of over-consumption and health issues, can the industry really justify ‘better for you’ sugar?
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01 .Introduction

pics of sugars and sweeteners

There are many good reasons why we should be limiting our sugar intake (see our tips for cutting back). The sugar we add to our coffee or sprinkle on our breakfast cereal contributes to our intake, but about 80% of the sugars we eat are in the foods we buy, with soft drinks, juices, fruit-based drinks, confectionery, cakes and sports drinks the main culprits. And most of these foods are low in nutrition as well.  

How much is too much?

In the Australian Dietary Guidelines of 2003 (currently being revised), the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) stated there was no evidence that, for most children and adults, deriving up to 15%-20% of energy (kilojoules) from sugars is a problem.

  • For a man aged 19-70, weighing 76kg, this translates to a maximum of 136g (or 34 4g-teaspoons) of sugar a day.
  • For a woman aged 19-70, weighing 61kg, it’s 105g (or about 26 teaspoons) of sugar a day.

Health risks of too much

The most recent studies indicate Australians are consuming more sugar than they need for a healthy diet. An over-consumption not only adds empty kilojoules to the diet but may also increase our risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). High intake of added sugars – those we sprinkle in our coffee or on our cereal, and those that manufacturers add to everything from confectionery to tomato sauce – is associated with increased risks of high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

If the thought of less sweetness in your diet is unpalatable, then intense sweeteners are an alternative. But they are usually present in heavily processed foods that don’t provide much nutritional value (such as biscuits, cakes, confectionery and soft drinks), so should not be consumed in large amounts anyway. 


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Controversy has surrounded the use of the major artificial sweeteners approved for use in Australia (listed in the table), largely because most have been linked with various forms of cancer, genetic abnormalities and other chronic diseases.

  • Aspartame, for example, has been found to cause lymphomas and leukaemias in rats.
  • Saccharin fed to rats was associated with higher rates of bladder cancer.
  • And studies have shown adverse effects on the reproductive tract of male rats due to cyclamate in the diet.

But as a review from the World Cancer Research Fund explains, artificial sweeteners in studies are administered to animals in massive amounts – far greater than humans could consume in foods and drinks. It says the evidence does not suggest that artificial sweeteners have a detectable effect on the risk of any cancer. However, anti-sweetener campaigners argue more studies are needed before we can be confident of their safety.



Concerns that artificial sweeteners increase appetite and energy intake, and cause people to gain weight, date back over two decades. Several studies from the late 1980s and early ’90s showed artificial sweeteners in products that provide little or no energy were associated with heightened hunger. While later work failed to support these findings, a 1986 survey by the American Cancer Society found people who used artificial sweeteners were more likely to gain weight than those who didn’t.

A 2009 review of the literature, looking at the mechanisms by which artificial sweeteners may promote energy intake and weight gain, revealed that most weren’t supported by the evidence. A 2010 review reported that epidemiological studies have generally shown a positive association between artificial sweetener intake and weight gain, but more high quality clinical trials are needed to establish or refute causality.


The newest kid on the block is the ‘natural’ sweetener, stevia (additive number 960, specifically steviol glycosides extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant), which you’ll find as a tabletop sweetener under brand names PureVia, Hermesetas Stevia Sweet and in CSR Smart. It, too, has had its share of controversy, with the US Center for Science in the Public Interest reporting it’s been inadequately tested and branding it “President Bush’s parting gift to the soda industry”, after the FDA issued a midnight go-ahead for the sweetener at the end of that president’s term. It was approved for use in Australia in 2008, but we’re yet to see its widespread use here due to issues with aftertaste (a key issue for the stevia industry globally).

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) reviews safety evidence and recommends a maximum level permitted in foods before approving sweeteners, and other additives, for use in Australia. But CHOICE wants more frequent exposure assessments, to ensure that our consumption of these sweeteners when consumed in a range of foods throughout the day does not exceed the acceptable daily intake recommended by scientific experts.

"Better for you" sugars

The sugar industry has been developing new products for consumers looking for healthier options, culminating in the launch of CSR’s ‘Better For You’ range in March 2009.

  • CSR LoGICane is essentially raw sugar that has had molasses extract sprayed onto it, resulting in a product with half the GI of sucrose. Low-GI
    foods are recommended for people with diabetes, and there’s some evidence that a low-GI diet may assist with weight loss. But LoGICane still has the
    equivalent kJ amount of regular sugar.
  • CSR Smart is a blend of cane sugar with intense sweetener stevia. It’s twice as sweet as sugar so you can use half as much, which can be useful for people
    watching their energy intake.
  • CSR Organic is made from ACO-certified cane sugar. It might have been produced without artificial chemicals, but it has the same kJ as regular sugar.

Ways to cut back on sugar

  • Check the labels. Nutrition information panels often only list total sugar, so it’s hard to distinguish between added and naturally occurring ones. But you can get a sense for the amount of added sugars in a product by checking the ingredients list. Common guises for added sugars include fructose (also look for “fruit juice concentrate”), glucose, corn sugar, dextrose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses and sucrose (also look for brown sugar, cane sugar, granulated sugar, icing sugar and sugar). And remember that the sugar industry's 'better for you' sugars are still sugar.
  • Reduce added sugar gradually. Don’t cut out sugar from your diet all at once. Gradually reduce the amount you add to tea, coffee or cereal and start
    choosing less sugary foods. Over time your tastebuds can be trained to appreciate less sugar, but studies show this adjustment typically takes eight to 12 weeks.
  • Watch what you drink. Sugary soft drinks, juices, fruit-based drinks and sports drinks are major sources of sugars in our diets. Water is the best beverage.
  • Substitute with spices. Add sweetness and flavour to food with cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger and nutmeg. Muffins and cakes can usually be made with at least 25% less sugar, and the sugar in stewed fruit and pie fillings can be cut in half.
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth with healthy snacks. Consider fruit, low-sugar cereal or add fruit to plain yoghurt. The best way to reduce your sugar intake is to limit processed foods that don’t provide much nutritional value, and eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain products instead


Fructose has received bad press of late, with some studies suggesting it contributes to growing levels of obesity. This is based on the way it’s metabolised – fructose stimulates insulin secretion less than glucose and glucose-containing carbohydrates. The theory goes that less insulin – and possibly lower resulting leptin levels – might inhibit appetite less than other carbohydrates, leading to increased energy intake. However, there’s no convincing evidence that dietary fructose increases energy intake.

That said, large amounts of fructose in the diet are known to increase the triglycerides released into the bloodstream following a meal, which is a risk factor for heart disease. This is more of an issue in the US, where fructose in the form of high fructose corn syrup is commonly used as a sugar substitute in processed foods due to its relative cheapness. The fructose naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables provides only a modest amount of dietary fructose and is not of concern.

Do soft drinks cause obesity?

Rising rates of obesity, accompanied by the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, has resulted in a growing concern that the two issues are connected. The standard explanation for the link is that energy-containing liquids are less satiating than solid foods – meaning the body doesn’t register liquid calories. However, more studies are needed to conclusively determine the mechanisms behind the relationship between soft drink consumption and body weight.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), our national food regulator, reported the increased consumption of sweetened drinks, such as soft drinks, is a risk factor in children’s obesity. Whether from soft drinks or other sources, excessive consumption of sugars has been linked not only with obesity, but with other health problems such as dental caries and type 2 diabetes, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients such as calcium, so it’s only sensible to limit how much sugar we’re consuming.

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