Calls for greater transparency on added sugar in packaged foods has received the backing of Australian dentists.
Excess sugar in the diet is not only linked to the obesity epidemic, but has been blamed for the increasing rates of dental decay seen in children as young as one.
With new analysis revealing seven out of 10 packaged goods sold on supermarket shelves contain added sugar, President of the Australian Dental Association Dr Hugo Sachs says reform is needed to ensure the oral health of young Australians.
"Nationally, over 24,000 children aged 14 years or under were admitted to hospital due to dental conditions - these hospitalisations were assessed as being potentially preventable. Over half of six-year-olds have experienced tooth decay in their baby teeth and up to half of 12-year-olds have experienced tooth decay in their permanent teeth," Dr Sachs said.
Researchers at the George Institute for Public Health analysed more than 34,000 packaged foods - about 18,000 discretionary foods and nearly 16,000 core foods like milk, bread and cheese.
A significantly higher proportion of discretionary foods contained added sugar compared to core foods - 87 per cent versus 52 per cent.
Soft drinks, cakes, pies, ice cream, pastries and processed meats are the worst offenders.
The findings, published in the journal Nutrients, have led to calls for manufacturers to declare the amount of added sugar on their packaging and calculated in the Health Star Ratings
"Good sugars are an integral part of a healthy diet, and we need to be able to separate sugars naturally present in dairy, fruits and vegetables from sugars added during manufacturing," said the Institute's Professor Bruce Neal.
The George Institute research will be submitted to the federal government's current review of the Health Star system.
Professor Neal says only labelling total sugar content as opposed to added sugar can be misguiding.
This is particularly so, he says, for discretionary products such as muesli bars, sauces and spreads, which contain a lot of added sugar but get a relatively high star ratings in the current system.
Earlier this year, a Choice report found that if consumers could identify added sugars on food packs they could avoid 26 teaspoons of sugar each day.
With 50 per cent of Australian adults consuming more added sugar than they should, there is a clear need for improved labelling, Prof Neal said.
"We'd encourage food manufacturers to start labelling added sugars and government to provide the framework," he said.
"Australians would be much better off if they could quickly and easily see how much sugar has been added."
The oral health of Australians would also greatly improve, says Dr Sachs.
"The George Institute's review shows that the Health Star Ratings are effectively hiding the presence of these added sugars in a number of products; meaning that consumers are inadvertently exposing themselves to increased risk of tooth decay," Dr Sachs said.