• Does sugar have any role to play in a healthy, balanced diet? (AAP)Source: AAP
Sugar is fast becoming public health's enemy number one, with a host of documentaries, celebrities and academics all vying to prove that it wreaks havoc on your body. Sharon Verghis examines whether the sweet substance is as bad as its reputation.
Sharon Verghis

31 Mar 2017 - 12:43 PM  UPDATED 31 Mar 2017 - 12:55 PM

In March 2015, That Sugar Film was released in Australian theatres, starring actor Damon Gameau as a human guinea pig who sets himself a goal of consuming 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for 60 days straight.

Over time in this real-life experiment, as he consumes milkshakes and doughnuts and adds sugar to already sugary cereal, the once lean and fit actor morphs into a bloated, miserable version of himself.

The moral? Sugar wreaks havoc on your body. That Sugar Film would go on to become a sleeper hit, watched by over 135,000 Australians in the cinema. That Sugar Book and That Sugar Guide sold over 110,000 copies. It’s now shown in schools all over the country, spawned a host of sugar “ambassadors” who spread the word of sugar’s evils, public health campaigns and a platform for legislative and regulatory change.

The moral? Sugar wreaks havoc on your body

Gameau is part of a long line of health evangelists who have warned against the dangers of sugar. As far back as 1972, British professor John Yudkin sounded the alarm in his book Pure, White and Deadly.

“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote Yudkin, “that material would promptly be banned.”

Since Yudkin’s time, sugar has become public enemy number one, with governments in the UK and US introducing caps on sugar consumption in their dietary guidelines and taxes on sugary drinks. It’s fuelled a public debate about the nature of sugar in Australia too. Is sugar really evil? Does it have any role to play in a healthy, balanced diet?

Queensland University of Technology academic Dr Helen Vidgen, senior research fellow at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, says we don’t need any refined sugar – it doesn’t provide any extra nutrients. “If you’re eating according to the Australian guide to healthy eating - so you’re eating your carbs in the form of wholegrain breads and cereals, fruit and vegetables, milk products and so on - your body will be getting the carbs and energy you need so you don’t need that extra added sugar.”

WHO guidelines recommend that we reduce our intake of free sugars to below 10 per cent of total energy intake daily. This translates to roughly 13 teaspoons a day.

According to recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data, on average Australians are consuming 14 teaspoons. So how can we reduce sugar in our diet? “The research shows that the quickest way to do that is reducing sugary drinks because these are easy to over consume – water is the preferred drink. Fruit juice is also easy to over consume – the Australian dietary guidelines recommend a maximum of 125 mls a days, which is just half a cup.”

“The research shows that the quickest way to do that is reducing sugary drinks because these are easy to over consume – water is the preferred drink."

Vidgen is particularly concerned about the amount of sugar Australian children consume. “Thirty per cent of their energy intake comes from non-core food, so that’s food that is not providing them with anything extra.”

It’s an alarming trend fuelled by the ever-expanding school lunchbox industry, and its heavy promotion of sugary packaged convenience foods, she says. Parents can get confused when reading labels on these foods. “Typically, they are very high in sugar even if it’s not described that way – fruit juice concentrate is a real classic for that… when people see that, it’s really difficult to decipher, it’s fruit puree added to a muesli  bar or yoghurt, perhaps, and it makes it even sweeter but it’s not particularly adding any nutrients. These foods are very tricky.”

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Australian dietician Alan Barclay concurs that we are consuming too much sugar, particularly in the form of soft drinks and confectionery, but cautions against what he sees as a rising “hysteria” and fundamentalism in the anti-sugar industry, which features the likes of author Sarah Wilson and her bestselling I Quit Sugar.

“I think any sort of puritanism is dangerous…The moral of the story is that not all sugar is bad for you. The sugar from fruit and veg and milk and yoghurt is naturally occurring and we don’t need to stop consuming these foods.”

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Do certain ethnic groups need to be more careful about their sugar levels than others? Barclay says no, as long as they’re following the dietary guidelines.

But he cautions that from a dental health point of view, Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in rural and remote areas, would be wise to reduce their daily energy needs from sugar to around five per cent.

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As for Gameau, where to for him?

“None of us working on the film could have imagined the impact the film would have…That Sugar Film is still the most successful local cinema documentary of all time, our online community has tipped over a quarter of a million followers, over 100,000 Australians have downloaded our free smartphone app (That Sugar App) and we’ve engaged over 900 schools with our School Action Toolkit.

“I’m happy to say that the Sugar train keeps rolling on - we now have 30 Ambassadors across Australia and New Zealand working hard to take the messages even further into their local communities, and the thing closest to my heart which continues to build momentum is the Mai Wiru Sugar Challenge Foundation, where we continue to support a community-driven Aboriginal nutrition program on the APY lands.”

Tune in to SBS Australia’s exclusive Facebook live this weekend to ask Damon Gameau your questions about sugar. Sunday 2 April from 7.30pm on the SBS Australia Facebook page. 

That Sugar Film screens on Sunday 2 April at 8:30pm on SBS, then after broadcast at SBS On Demand. 

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