The case for an Australian sugar tax has just gotten stronger, with the results of a new University of Sydney study showing that 55 per cent of the population consumes more added sugar per day than the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Research, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, has found that most Australians get over 10 per cent of our total daily energy intake from food and drink products with ‘added’ or ‘free sugars’ such as honey and syrups, and sugar in fruit juice.
Sugary drinks are the main culprit in the Australian diet with the study showing that sweet spreads and cakes, biscuits, pastries and batter-based products are the second biggest cause of our poor sugar habits.
The study’s lead author and dietician Dr Jimmy Louie explains that the recent results are similar to those from the last analysis, the 1995 National Nutrition Survey, which is now over two decades old.
“For a long time we criticised food manufacturers for producing core foods like bread, yoghurt and breakfast cereal high in added sugar, but this study shows that up to 80 to 90 per cent of our added sugar intake is coming from what should be occasional food or treats,” says Dr Louie, Honorary Associate in the Sydney Medical School.
“As such, the focus of public health programs going forward should be on limiting foods like soft drinks and cakes, and encouraging people to swap them for better choices.”
The focus of public health programs going forward should be on limiting foods like soft drinks and cakes, and encouraging people to swap them for better choices
The study’s findings reveal that over 75 per cent of children aged nine to 13 years exceed WHO guidelines for daily sugar intake.
Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Sydney University, Timothy Gill says other recent studies also confirm that older teens and males in particular are consuming a large amount of added sugar from products such as soft drinks.
This is why he believes it is now time for serious action on Australian-wide sugar consumption and is in favour of introducing a nationwide ‘sugar’ tax to improve the nation’s health and reduce our waistlines.
“Most people know what they should and shouldn’t be eating but these foods are so readily available, cheap and heavily marketed at teenagers that we need to do more than [awareness raising and education campaigns],” says Prof Gill.
“A price signal would be one of the most important signals to send on the issue. Teenagers are a price-sensitive age group: they’re more price sensitive than adults so I think a sugar tax is a good place to start.”
A new sugar tax on the soft drinks industry will be introduced in the UK, it was announced this month, and there have been calls to introduce a similar tax to Australia.
“We hear from our government that a sugar tax is too hard and not really justified,” says Gill.
“But if a conservative chancellor in the UK deems that it’s not only possible and feasible but appropriate and necessary, then why doesn’t our government consider it appropriate and necessary? Our [political and health] systems are very similar to the UK.”
The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) currently encourages Australians to limit foods that contain added sugar with little nutritional value (such as confectionery, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks), rather than nutritious foods containing some added sugar.
A DAA spokesperson also told SBS Life that the issue of weight gain and health is more complex and bigger than the issue of just ‘added sugars’.
It’s about taking a balanced approach that is sustainable over the long-term.
“While excess added sugar can contribute to weight gain, DAA believes it is simplistic and unhelpful to blame sugar alone for rising rates of overweight and obesity, and related health problems in Australia,” a DAA spokesperson says.
“A healthy, balanced diet involves eating a wide variety of nutritious foods, in the right amounts, while occasionally being able to enjoy small amounts of ‘discretionary choices’. It’s about taking a balanced approach that is sustainable over the long-term.”
The study was based on a 24-hour recall of eating habits, conducted over the course of a year, from a representative sample of over 8,000 participants in the most recent 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey.
WHO recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake.
A further reduction to below five per cent or roughly 25 grams (six teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.