In this article:
Why added sugars are bad for you
In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a recommendation that no more than 10% of total daily energy intake should come from added sugars. For an average adult intake of 8700 kilojoules, this equates to 52 grams or 13 teaspoons of added sugar.
This recommendation was made on the basis that 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.
Correspondingly, the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADGs) advises Australians to limit their intake of foods and beverages containing added sugar, especially all sugar-sweetened drinks, sports drinks, confectionery, biscuits and cakes. An estimated 74% of packaged foods contain added sugars in the US and the proportion in Australia is likely to be similar.
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 do 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.
And it's not just a problem for adults; the latest National Child Oral Health Study found that one third of Australian children have experienced decay in their deciduous (baby) teeth by the age of 5-6 years, increasing to 46% of children by the age of 9-10 years. Staggeringly 5200 Victorian children aged 0-14 years were hospitalised due to dental conditions last year.
How much added sugar are we eating?
Contrary to the advice from health bodies, in 2011-12 Australians consumed on average 60 grams (14 teaspoons) of added sugar a day. This equates to almost 22 kilos of added sugar a year. The situation is worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are consuming on average 75 grams (18 teaspoons) of added sugar daily.
The Australian Health Survey found that over half of Australians exceed the WHO's recommendation to reduce added sugar to 10% of daily energy intake. And the most affected groups? Children and teenagers.
Close to three quarters of 9-13 and 14-18 year olds usually get 10% or more of their dietary energy intake from added sugars. For 14-18 year old males, the average consumption of added sugar is 22 teaspoons per day and the top 10% consume at least 38 teaspoons per day, equivalent to the sugar in four cans of coke. Products such as sugar-sweetened beverages, breakfast cereal, spreads, cakes, biscuits, muesli bars and ready-made sauces and meals were the primary contributors to added sugar in their diets.
The problem with current 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 40+ 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).
Neither of these labelling elements gives consumers the ability 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
Consumers need clear and accurate information to make informed choices about their food. Right now, Australian food labelling requirements don't let consumers follow the advice on added sugars set by leading national and international health institutions. This means that Australians, especially children and teenagers, are over-consuming added sugar and they are doing so unknowingly.
CHOICE is calling on Food and Health Ministers to take action on added sugar and label it clearly on food products. If you'd like to see this change, send a message to Ministers via our campaign.
Sugar savings from simple food swaps
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.
Intrinsic vs added sugar – what's the difference?
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 (what the WHO terms 'free sugars'), on the other hand, are devoid of other nutritional benefits, add unnecessary kilojoules to a diet and have damaging health effects. They include monosaccharides such as glucose and disaccharides such as sucrose, added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.