The problem with food labels
Currently there's no clear way of knowing how much sugar has been added to a food by looking at the label.
You can check the ingredients list to see if a product contains added sugar – the higher up the list, the more sugar the product contains. But added sugars can be disguised under 42 different names and distributed throughout the ingredient list, so they're not always straightforward to identify and even harder to quantify.
You can also look to the amount of total sugar in a product on the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). However, this total doesn't differentiate sugars that have been added by the manufacturer (including glucose, honey and fruit juice concentrates) from those that are intrinsic to the food or one of its ingredients (such as lactose in milk). See What are added sugars for more.
But neither of these labelling elements helps people to easily determine what and how much added sugar is in their food. With so many terms disguising added sugar, and total sugar information sending mixed health messages, it's evident that current labels are failing consumers.
CHOICE calls for better labelling
We need clear and meaningful added sugar labelling so that we can follow advice to limit added sugar consumption and maintain a healthy diet. There are three main changes we want to see:
- Show the number of teaspoons of sugar in sugar-sweetened drinks. Soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one contributor to our added sugar intake. Some teenagers are consuming 38 teaspoons of added sugar a day, equivalent to the sugar in four cans of Coke. Identifying the amount of teaspoons of sugar on these products would clearly indicate just how much sugar they contain.
- Make it easy to spot added sugar in the ingredients list. Food companies use over 40 different words for added sugar, including muscovado, rapadura or barley malt extract. We want all added sugar ingredients to be grouped together in the ingredient list so that people can clearly identify them.
- Include added sugar in the nutrition information panel. Currently the nutrition information panel (NIP) only displays total sugars, which includes both intrinsic and added sugar. Intrinsic sugars are found in nutrient-rich foods such as milk, fruit and vegies. These foods are recommended by our dietary guidelines and are part of a healthy and balanced diet. The advice is to reduce the intake of added sugar, which is the sugar added to a product by the food manufacturer. This is why we want the amount of added sugar to be identified separately on the NIP.
How to avoid added sugars
The majority of the sugar we eat comes from processed foods. So labelled or not, the most effective way to curb your added sugar intake (and at the same time improve the nutritional quality of your diet) is to eat a wide variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and other whole foods and minimise the amount of processed foods you eat.
Labels that clearly identify the amount of added sugars in food would enable Australians to make informed choices about which products to buy, and help them reduce the amount of added sugar they're consuming. To demonstrate, we've determined the added sugars hiding in some commonly eaten items, identified lower sugar alternatives and calculated the added sugar savings to be had if you swapped what you eat.
If the following six product swaps were made daily, consumers could save a massive 38 kilograms of unnecessary sugar a year. Even if the swaps were made on a less frequent basis, consumers could save almost 15 kilograms a year. However, these savings can only be achieved with true and meaningful sugar labelling.
Added sugar FAQs
Sugar is often referred to as being either intrinsic or added.
Intrinsic sugars include the sugars found in nutrient-rich foods such as milk and intact fruits and vegetables. These foods are recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines and their intrinsic sugars are part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Added sugars are the major source of sugar in the Australian diet and are damaging to our health. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls these sugars 'free sugars' and they include monosaccharides such as glucose and disaccharides such as sucrose, which are added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as the sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
When we refer to added sugars, we refer to the WHO's 'free sugars' definition.
Most of the added sugar we consume today comes from processed foods, rather than sugar added at the table or in cooking. An estimated 74% of packaged foods in the United States contain added sugars and the situation in Australia is likely similar.
In the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey the majority (81%) of free sugars were consumed from the energy-dense, nutrient-poor 'discretionary' foods and beverages. Just over half (52%) of free sugars in the diet were consumed from beverages, with the leading beverages being soft drinks, electrolyte and energy drinks (19%), fruit and vegetable juices and drinks (13%), and cordial (4.9%). The leading foods were confectionery and cakes/muffins (each contributing 8.7%).
Added sugars provide empty kilojoules, or kilojoules with little or no associated nutrients. Eating too many foods high in added sugars can increase overall energy intake and at the same time displace more nutritious foods in the diet – essentially resulting in a population that's overfed and undernourished – and ultimately leading to weight gain and increased risk of non-communicable diseases including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Frequent consumption of foods and drinks high in added sugars is also a major risk factor in tooth decay. Sugars provide food for the bacteria that dissolve tooth enamel, and as sugar consumption increases, so does the potential for cavities. This damage is irreparable, and individuals are left with life-long problems which require fillings, root canal work or extractions. In 2014-15, $9.564bn was spent on dental services in Australia, up from $6.1bn in 2007-08.
The WHO recommends that no more than 10% of our total daily energy intake come from added sugars, which for an average adult intake of 8,700 kilojoules, amounts to 52 grams or 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
According to our most recent national nutrition survey, Australians consumed more than the recommended amount on a daily basis – on average 60 grams or 14 teaspoons of added sugar a day. This equates to almost 22 kilos of added sugar a year.
Some groups are eating much more. Male teenagers (aged 14-18), for example, are consuming 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day on average, with the top 10% of this group consuming at least 38 teaspoons a day.
Different names for added sugar
Sugary 'health' foods
While on the hunt for a healthy snack at the supermarket, many people would reasonably head to the health food aisle. You know the one – the aisle with all the products claiming to be 'gluten free', 'natural' or 'organic'.
What you might not expect to find are so-called healthy products laden with sugar. But we found substantial amounts of added sugar in products presented as good-for-you – in the health food aisle and elsewhere – and in some cases it took some serious sleuthing to determine that this was the case.
- Clif Chocolate Chip Bar, located with other sports and protein supplements, provides 'nutrition for sustained energy', but is also 32% sugar in a number of guises including brown rice syrup, cane syrup and barley malt extract.
- Go Natural Twisters Fruit Snack, which we found in the health food aisle, claims to be gluten and additive free. The brand name implies that they're 'natural', but they're 67% sugars in the form of concentrated apple puree and juice as well as concentrated strawberry juice.
- Uncle Tobys Plus, Peach, Sultanas and Oat Clusters may be "high in wholegrain" and provide "20% of your daily protein", but there's no getting away from the fact that its ingredients include multiple added sugars (sugar, invert sugar, malt extract, glucose solids, golden syrup, and honey to name a few), which make up the bulk of its 23% total sugars.
- Weight Watchers Coconut Delight bars are an approved snack under the Weight Watchers weight loss program, but are 37% sugar with invert sugar, barley malt extract and honey all contributing to this total.
A look inside the pack
We analysed the ingredients list and nutrition information panel of some of the foods we found in the health food aisle to show just how much added sugar – compared with other ingredients – they contain.
Go Natural Berry Frugo's
On the pack: "Goodness tastes better", "All natural", "Source of calcium", "Gluten free", "No artificial colours, flavours or preservatives".
In the pack:
Golden Days Apricot Delight
On the pack: "Natural choice", "Made with real fruit", "Gluten free", "Dairy free", "No artificial colours", "No artificial flavours".
In the pack:
Lowan Cocoa Bombs
On the pack: "Gluten free", "Low fat", "No artificial flavours".
In the pack: