The price of sugar

17 January 2018

Dr Lynne Chepulis

Sugar has had a lot of bad press over the last few years, and justifiably so: excessive sugar consumption has been linked with increased risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and dementia. A recent Global Burden of Disease modelling study suggests that globally, around 185,000 deaths each year can be linked to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

New Zealand has the third highest obesity rate in the OECD, and our rates are rising.  Despite this, new research from University of Waikato academic Dr Lynne Chepulis and international colleagues, published in the Public Health Nutrition journal, shows that the beverage industry in New Zealand continues to be saturated with high-energy, low-nutrition beverages that are “heavily marketed and readily available.”

Dr Chepulis, who has been researching the sugar content of New Zealand food and beverages for a number of years, partnered with colleagues in Australia, Canada and the UK for this study, the first to compare nutritional content and serving size of beverages among countries. The study focussed on five categories of non-alcoholic beverages: carbonated sodas, juices, juice-based drinks, water drinks and sports drinks. None of the four countries currently has any regulation of the nutritional content of food and beverages.

So how much is too much sugar? The World Health Organisation recommends that no more than 10% (and preferably no more than 5%) of our daily energy intake should come from sugar. This is equivalent to no more than 60g of sugar per day for an adult, and 19-25g of sugar for children aged 4-10 years.  A 330ml can of Coke, which is defined as “one serving”, contains 35g of sugar – more than half the total daily sugar maximum for an adult and more than the recommended total daily sugar for a child. Downing a 600ml bottle of Coke will put an adult over their daily maximum without accounting for any other sugars consumed during the day. It’s worth noting, too, that Coke suggests a daily intake of 90g of sugar – part of the issue is that nutritional labels can be confusing and misleading, making it difficult for consumers to make healthy choices.

Disappointingly, New Zealand performed the worst of the four countries included in the study in nearly all categories, and has shown little improvement in the sugar content of its beverages over several years. “This shows that industry self-regulation isn’t working,” Dr Chepulis says. Australia and Canada performed marginally better than New Zealand overall, but were still poor. The UK, however, performed notably better than the other three countries in terms of serving size and sugar content across all beverage categories included in the study, and has improved since similar data were collected in 2014. Dr Chepulis’ research suggests that this may be due to a tiered sugar tax being introduced in the UK in April 2018.

In other countries, such as Mexico, that have introduced a sugar tax, the additional cost is passed on to the consumer. While the data show a decrease in the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages following the introduction of the tax, the greatest impact was on low socio-economic groups, and it didn’t change the number of sugar-sweetened beverages available. The UK sugar tax will be targeted at manufacturers, which appears to have provided motivation for manufacturers to reformulate their products with less sugar.

Dr Chepulis’ study notes that “there is an urgent need for public health interventions to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages around the world.” Given that industry self-regulation is clearly not working, New Zealand needs to take action to halt our rapid slide into a sugar-saturated health crisis.

The full research paper is also available.

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